Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Periodically, American Culture Critic will host guest reviews. The first of these appears below, as special correspondent Jim Chiu has generously and graciously donated his time to pen the review of the polarizing film Fifty Shades of Grey, directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, which appears below. Many thanks, Jim.
"Fifty Shades of Grey was a surprise for me. It is difficult, when a film receives as much hype as Fifty Shades has, to go in without expectations. However, I was pleasantly taken aback by the cinematic work I ended up viewing.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a film whose underlying theme is contrast and dichotomy. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jaime Dornan) are two polar opposites who engage in a whirlwind romance. Unfortunately, this film plays out more as a tragedy than a romance film. But before we get to that, let me play homage to the people who really brought this film to life: the production crew.
Returning to the themes of contrast and dichotomy, the production crew, from cinematographers to wardrobe to set designers, all clearly worked with a unified vision in order to highlight them. Anastasia Steele’s apartment is exactly what one would see in a college apartment. It is chaotic and eclectic.  Christian Grey’s office and home are cold stone and devoid of warm colors. The only room in Christian’s home with any color in it is his “red room of pain.” Each set piece highlights an aspect of the characters’ life. Moving from set piece to set piece colors the interaction between the characters.
The inestimable Danny Elfman’s work is amazing in this film. His musical choices complement each scene and create an ambiance in which the actors play their roles. From the college rock on campus and in bars to the dark orchestral pieces that play in the “red room of pain,” Mr. Elfman’s touch cannot be mistaken.
The cinematography is masterful in this film, which especially heightens the use of contrast visually and thematically. Great care was taken to ensure the “red room of pain” scenes enjoyed the warmest lighting, creating contrast shadows and at the same time, it felt like the focus was brought to razor sharpness. These scenes were the show piece of the film and mean to communicate the fact that, in these moments, both characters felt more passion, more clarity, and more intensity than any other spent outside this room.
All this excellent work is wrapped around a story that is controversial to say the least. I feel it is outside the scope of this review to tackle the social topic of abusive relationships, so we will focus on the storytelling. Anastasia and Christian are not only a couple at odds with each other, but with themselves. Each character is found battling their own nature and their own perceived limitations throughout the film. Unfortunately, this can come off as a bit sophomoric in its delivery. Anastasia’s attempt to deny her attraction towards Christian is an excellent example of this. That said, there was an incredible amount of subtly to both actor’s performances as what was not said was just as important as what was said out loud.
Overall, while this film stumbles in places, Fifty Shades of Grey was an impressive and intense piece of filmmaking."

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Anyone who ever saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier or the television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.(or even read the source comics all the way back to the sixties) are aware of Hydra, Marvel's version of SPECTRE from the James Bond series of films. It's a fictional evil organization whose motto is succinctly put: "Cut off one head, two more grow in it's place." This underlying conceit of motto is what makes that particular organization so insidiously effective ... the idea that an ideal cannot be killed. You may kill one agent, but two others will have taken that agent's place.
A tragic situation took place in Paris yesterday. Three armed Islamist terrorists stormed the office of the satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" and killed 12 people and wounded 10 others, among them an two unarmed Parisian police officers, as retribution for the cartoons the magazine published satirizing Islamic extremism. Like all other terrorist attacks, it was meant to create an environment of fear and contriteness.
Instead, the opposite has happened.
Chances are many of you did not know of Charlie Hebdo (Admittedly, I never knew about it until the attack). Take a good look at the Internet; particularly social media. You know about it now. I'm sure your Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Pheed, etc. feeds are littered with not only stories of the attack, but statements from friends, acquaintances, and strangers. The unknowns and the celebrities, all decrying the attack and, further, posting ad infinitum the satirical cartoons (some censored, but mostly not) that provoked the attack. Instead of being suppressed, its being disseminated while political satirist cartoonists are producing new cartoons in the same vein as of this writing in solidarity and protest. As violent and tragic as the terrorist act was, it has provoked a response completely, exponentially, opposite to what was intended.
"Free speech" is not a uniquely American concept; it's a universal desire, especially to those who live under dictatorial regimes. But free speech, as made explicitly clear yesterday, is NOT free. It's a right that has to be claimed, asserted, continually fought for, otherwise it would be eradicated by those who would see it expunged from the proverbial face of the earth. But freedom (whether political, religious, spiritual, or what have you) is not a tangible thing that can be cut down by an AK-47; it's an idea that is worth living for, fighting for, and, as Stephane Charbonnier and his staff unfortunately learned, dying for. However, it doesn't perish with the martyred idea holder...but instead promulgates and radiates outwards to others who carry the torch and push the idea. Kill the one, and two others take it place. Or, as that old shampoo commercial asserts, "you tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on..."
This is why terrorism must ultimately fail. While the purveyors of an idea may perish, the idea cannot. The current cultural awareness and response to these attacks is evidence of fact. The great irony in all of this is that the terrorists, in trying to promote their cause, have only undermined it further.
To paraphrase a pop culture icon, "Stay free, my friends."

Monday, December 15, 2014

AN UPHILL BATTLE: "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" Is A Feast of Spectacle That Doesn't Justify Its Bloat.

"Will you follow me? One last time?" 

This question is posed by the dwarven king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) halfway into Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies. By that point, the character has used up whatever good will he has left with not only the outer world-at-large, but with his twelve dwarven companions. However, despite all that his character has done through the course of this film, they still follow his lead headless of the bittersweet ramifications. It seems almost a metatextual plea from Jackson himself to the viewer regarding The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies, considering he's turning what amounts to perhaps thirty pages (depending on the edition) of one novel into a bloated two-hour plus film (which ironically is the shortest of all of Jackson's Tolkein adaptations). Mercifully, the bloat is not as egregious as it was in The Desolation of Smaug; here there is a tighter focus as the narrative speeds, in jerking spurts, to it's conclusion.

Well, not until a whole lot of this takes place.

The film takes up where the last one ends, with the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberatch) laying seige on the seemingly defenseless city of Esgaroth/Lake-Town. Meanwhile, Thorin Oakenshield turns his back on the helpless humans, choosing instead to revel in his newfound wealth and seek the yet-to-be discovered Arkenstone, deafening his ears to the compassionate pleas of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), begging Oakenshield to honor his word. As this takes place, Thranduil (Lee Pace) leads his elven army to The Lonely Mountain to reclaim the elven jewels held there, unaware that the orcan general Azog (Manu Bennett) leads a militia of orcs and goblins to claim the mountain and lay waste to all beings they find be they human, dwarven, or elven, Lastly, Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) is slowly dying at the hands of The Necromancer/Sauron (voiced by Cumberbatch) in the abandoned fortress of Gol Dulgur. It all comes to a head at the base of The Lonely Mountain.

It's all about dat base, 'bout dat base, 'bout dat base...

It's difficult to view this film as a stand-alone picture because (a) it's not, as it is dependent upon what the events of An Unexpected Journey and Desolation; and (b) the fact that Jackson's previous Lord of the Rings adaptation trilogy was vastly superior in execution. Granted, Jackson and his team of screenwriters (Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens) took lots of liberties with the source material for those film as well. But at least they remained somewhat faithful to the source's tone, if not its themes and motifs.

What irks the most is how much Jackson & Co. miss the point this time around. The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings, despite both works being penned by the same author. The Hobbit is a charming, whimsical tale that, while ostensibly geared for children, is a rite of passage character study; particularly the character of Bilbo Baggins. That charm, that whimsy, is all but lost.  It's only in two scenes towards the end...two small scenes, mind you...the spirit of the source material is captured. Heart is traded for spectacle and, while that spectacle is grand, it's also souless. Jackson's stretching out the novel, along with inserting material from other Tolkein works as well as creating a wholly new subplot that doesn't exit, only calls attention to the weaknesses in the endeavor. As such, we're treated to long stretches of dialogue and soap operaish elements that make what is supposed to be taken seriously teeter dangerously into parody.  With the original films, it was easy to buy into the moments of pathos and heroism as they were interwoven organically through the story beats and the performances. Here, Jackson's direction is so self-consciously heavy handed, as the actors are made to stop and pose for dramatic effect, the moments are constructed in such a way as to seem like a subliminal "applause" message at an sitcom-studio audience taping. Strike a pose, there's nothing to it. Madonna would be proud.

Azog strikes a similar pose.

And what of those characters brought in that had nothing to do with the story? Perhaps by way of apology, given the actor's scenes having ended up on the cutting room floor upon theatrical release, Jackson gives Christopher Lee's Saurman more to do in a rescue sequence that is reminiscent of his turn as Count Dooku in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, with the Galadrial (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) providing back up. The scene is the obligatory foreshadowing of the events in The Fellowship of the Ring, but it makes sense and works within its context.  Unfortunately, Orlando Bloom's Legolas' presence only serves as reminder of how much better the previous series of films were. If you thought his Oliphant battle sequence in The Return of the King stretched the bounds of credulity, what he does in this film makes that sequences feels as though it were within the realm of actual physics. And, as for the shoehorned, exclusive to the films burgeoning romance between dwarven Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evageline Lilly), it would be bad enough to say that it doesn't enhance the procedings...but the most telling indictment is that it doesn't detract from it, either. Despite both actors' charms (which they do have in abundance), and their best efforts, their story is executed so superficially that it fails to make a mark. There's no emotion, no resonance, because the two are simply not given enough time in either of the last two films to make an impression. Tauriel exists only to keep the film from becoming, in crass vernacular, a sausage-fest. Whether that is purist quibbling or not, the bottom line is that to shoehorn a non-existent romance for demographic concerns show a lack of confidence in the material itself and, thus, undermines its presentation.

"Really? THIS is why I'm here?"

While the film gets a lot wrong, what it gets right, it's so RIGHT.  The film is sumptious to look at. Even more than An Unexpected Journey, the viewer gets an idea of scope and scale to Middle-Earth. Alan Lee's drawings come to life in a way that hints at the epicness of Tolkein's world. As for the battles themselves, they are something to behold. The CGI and 3D effects, somewhat disjointed in the last film, are much more streamlined, adding to the film's majesty and worthy of being seen in IMAX. Now, given a 45 minute battle run time, some (not all) skirmishes go waaaaay too long. Further, some of the battles are shot and choreographed in such a way as to be unintentionally humorous, which in turn minimizes the poignancy of some the outcomes of said battles. Nevertheless, they are on par with those in The Return of the King  though, given the rule of escalation in drama, they shouldn't be.

The three of us make for one Aragorn. Honest.

Seemingly an afterthought in the previous film, Martin Freeman makes the most of his expanded role as Bilbo Baggins. While his Bilbo's journey in the film is not as transfromative of character as in the book, Freeman's convincing performance reminds the audience that he is the film's heart and conscience. Freeman manages to make the role his own even as he maintains Ian Holm's idiosyncraces; no easy feat.  He draws you in to Bilbo's joys and inevitable pains, as much as Richard Armitage's Thorin draws you into his own "Madness of The King of the Mountain". Armitage skillfully swings from emotion to emotion with the skill of a trapeeze artist. It's a surprisingly mesmerizing turn, even if one particular sequence is emblematic of the afore said soap opera melodrama. Lee Pace's wood-elven king is as arogant as ever, but Pace deftly shows hints that there are chinks in the emotional armor, and at the film's end, there is a hint of emotional growth in the character. Nothing need be said here about Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf that hasn't been said in over a decade. He basically is that character. Special mention has to go Billy Connoly as Theorin's cousin Dain and Ryan Gage as Alfred, for bringing much needed, intentional comic relief; especially the latter, who ramps up the character's smarm and opportunistic cowardace to great effect.  One of the best actors on set, however, may be the dog who happened to look up at the camera crane as it was panning back for a long shot. Howard Shore's orchestrations give the film the urgency it requires, even if it lacks in some of the punch of his previous efforts in these series of films, Smaug excluded. Yet it compliments the film well, especially at the conclusion and denoument, wherein echoes of The Fellowship come into play. Despite some of the over-the-top elements, the performances will move you. Have a couple of tissues handy. As afore said, there are a couple of moments that capture the spirit of the novel, and one would have to be hard of heart not to be moved by them.

On it's own, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a good film but, ultimately, falls short of the intended mark; a victim of both it's own hubris and excesses, and in comparison to the previous installments, hampered by the very legacy it attempts to bolster. It is in turns plodding and rousing, teetering between the two extremes like a see saw, but thankfully the good outweighs the bad.  Yet for all that, one can find solace in the fact that the film's meaning stems from Martin Freeman's presentation of the virtues found in the heart of a simple Hobbit who tries to make things right. Would that Peter Jackson had remembered that instead of seeking box office riches akin to all the gold in The Lonely Mountain.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

NOT TOO HORRIBLE: "Horrible Bosses 2" Entertains Despite Improvisational Excess

Some films demand a sequel. Some films work as a "done-in-one". Some films get a sequel despite having been a "done-in-one." Horrible Bosses 2 belongs in that last category.  The bumbling would-be murders from the first film, womanizer Kurk Buckman (Jason Sudeikis), terminal worrywart Dale Arbrus (Charlie Day), and their ostensibly level-headed, eternally put-upon leader Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman), trade in homicide for kidnapping in this unnecessary though fun sequel. The boys attempt to go into business for themselves, having tired of working for bosses (horrible or otherwise) and opt to go into entrepreneurship with a device called the "Shower Buddy". When shopping tycoon Bert Hanson manages to trick them into a deal that will leave them without the rights or profits to their invention, the trio enlist the dubious help of Dean "M*****F*****" Jones (Jamie Foxx), who advises them to kidnap Hanson's obnoxious prick of a son, Rex (Chris Pine) and hold him for ransom in an attempt to save their interests. 

Directed by Seth Gordon, the film's strength stems from its players, which also include Bosses alumni Jennifer Aniston as sex-addicted Dr. Julia Harris, and Kevin Spacey as the murderously irrascible Dave Harken. The camaraderie between the big three of Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day is evident in the performances. Unfortunately, not all of that camraderie translates to laughs. This time around, there's more of an improvisational aesthetic in their scenes together. It seems they were given more room to play; however, Gordon did not seem to know when to cut recess short. At times they go on so long (and are painfully unfunny), that you inadvertently feel Nick's frustration at his buddies, like emotional Smell-O-Vision. It's not to say that the actors are bad. The give-and-take between the three is genuine. You get the sense that these guys have the same chemistry in real life as their characters do and, for the most part, they're a pleasure to watch work...most of the time. It's when they veer off-script that the film's flow derails. It would be better if the improv'ed material were up to par. Some of what ended up on screen would have been better off on the cutting room floor. 

The true laughs from the film come from the supporting players. Aniston's Harris is now a nymphomainiac-in-recovery, but she only pays that lip service...among other things. She gamely steps out of her personal comfort zone to hilarious result.  Foxx' MF'er Jones character is given much more to do this time around and fulfills the character's promise only hinted at in the first film. Meahwhile, his Django Unchanined co-star Waltz plays the elder Hanson with matter-of-fact smarm. He treats his character straight, his "it's only business" sociopathy so throughly banal, one can't help not to hate him. The biggest surprise here, however, is Chris Pine; an odd thing to say, given that Pine has proven himself to be a very charming, convincing, and capable actor. However, he is so in sync with the three stars that it seems almost as if he's always been a part of the ensemble. The foursome mesh so well together, you can't help but get drawn in to their scenes together. 

The story itself, from a screenplay by Sean Anders and John Morris, is a convoluted affair, with enough twists to give one whiplash. Had the editing been tighter, it would have been a smooth ride. When it's off, it's off. But when it's on, the comedy's on full cylinders; especially as it leads towards the climax. Some of it is farfetched, but it's appropriate to the lunacy that typifies this film franchise.

Horrible Bosses 2 is a good film. Pacing issues and lack of actor restrainmt keep it from being a great comedy, but it is on par with the first. Just sit back, roll your eyes along with Jason Bateman when necessary, and relax. It won't be a "horrible" experence. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014


A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” – C.S. Lewis.

Big Hero 6 is the first Disney-animated production based on a Marvel Comics property but there’s a reason why it’s called “Disney’s Big Hero 6”…The final product is barely recognizable from the source material, having been reimagined as a family film.  The tale follows Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a boy genius and robotics prodigy who uses his unique skills to hustle robot fights until an intervention by his brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) gets him interested in becoming accepted into a prestigious robotics university run by science guru Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell). When his prototype nanotechnology is stolen by a menacing Kabuki-masked villain, young Hiro enlists the aid of his brother’s prototype medical soft robot Baymax and Tadashi’s colleagues Fred the geek (T.J. Miller); Go Go, the extreme sports enthusiast, (Jamie Chung); Wasabi, an OCD neat freak (Damon Wayans, Jr.); and chemicals specialist Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) to ferret out how and why.

At the center of all this is Baymax, a plastic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man primed for toy exploitation, who is as cute and cuddly as a Madagascarian penguin.  However, this ingratiating adorableness is achieved without being cloying manipulative, which is definitely attributable to the character’s minimalist rendering combined with guileless vocal performance by Scott Adsit.

To be truthful, co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams know when to be big and when to bring the action down and have an impeccable sense of comic timing. They know when to let the story breath, and when to let it rip. The animation is so good it can almost be mistaken for a Pixar entry. San Fransokyo, setting of the film, is presented as a pseudo, animated Epcot whose design is emblematic of the film’s Asian and occidental pastiche, with the comparison to the theme park made even more apparent by Henry Jackman’s (possibly) “World Showcase” inspired score. The CGI, 3D renderings of location and character represent their hybrid influences without favoring one or the other. Given the amount of futuristic dirigibles that line the city’s skyline, a bit of Gotham City thrown in for good measure. It is so distinctive it is a character in and of itself much like Basin City and the aforementioned Gotham in their respective film franchises.

However, the city seems to have more character than the principals. The film is somewhat uneven in terms of plot and characterization. Granted, the story is well executed, exemplifying all the hallmarks of both the Disney story-telling template and the anime tropes thrown into the mix. However, unlike other similar films (Pixar’s Up and this film’s spiritual counterpart, The Incredibles, immediately come to mind), the balance between pathos and exhilaration is not well balanced. For example, when the requisite loss does take place, the impact is not as profound as would be found in previous Disney efforts (though no less poignant). To their credit, they present Hiro as a genius prodigy without making him overbearing. He’s rather likable; as are his teammates, though they are more personality traits than actual personalities, otherwise far too familiar to anyone who has seen any iteration of a Japanese super-team template. Though, when they have to “Teen Titans Go Go Go Power Rangers” mode, it’s entertaining to watch. In fact, they manage to present an antagonist as menacing as those in the upper echelons of Disney’s villainous Pantheon while, at the same time, provide poignant commentary about the darkening of characters (and super heroes) that need no such treatment.

Does it work as a story/film for both children and adults? Despite a couple of narrative and casting blips, the answer is an absolute “yes”. Big Hero 6 is a film that has a sense of fun and heart that breezes by so fast, you actually wish there were more to watch. Judging from the screening I attended, the primary audience the film is intended for gave it resounding, and loud, squeals of delight. It appeals to both the child and adult within us.

So yes, Baymax; I am satisfied with my care. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

A MOVIE WORTH WAITING FOR: "Sin City: A Dame To Kill For" Is Disturbingly Nihilistic, But Uniquely Presented

Deep dish pizza … southern fried chicken … cheesecake … French fries … T-bone steak ... bacon double cheeseburgers … a stack of melted-butter, rich maple syrup drenched pancakes … what do all these foods have in common? A one-way ticket to a myocardial infarction; a caloric, fat-laden miasma of fat and grease that when consumed in great amounts can make one feel sickeningly nauseous…but oh, does it taste so gooooood going down. 

Come on…you know you want me.

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is a lot like that.

”Sin City”, the brain child of comic book writer/artist and director Frank Miller, was a groundbreaking and critically-acclaimed combination of 90’s grim-and-gritty chic with the style of pulp magazines and classic film noir; a formula that was successfully translated onto the big screen in 2005 by directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez. With A Dame To Kill For, lightning has struck twice…tenfold. It’s akin to experiencing an unfolding disaster; horrifying to witness much less contemplate, yet too tantalizing to look away.  

The film engenders that feeling because it looks so damn good, more likely due to Rodriguez’ guiding hand then Miller’s (as anyone who’s watched Miller’s solo-directorial effort The Spirit (2008) can attest). If last year’s Machete Kills was Rodriguez’ grindhouse pastiche of gory excess, A Dame To Kill For is his art house love sonnet. Rodriguez’ sensibilities combined with Miller’s overall vision captures the look and feel of the source material, while at the same time rising (in varying degrees) above its conventions. Technology has caught up with their combined vision and the visuals are much more powerfully impressionistic than in the first outing (even more so in 3D). The city itself is the main oppressively omnipresent character; an indifferent god engulfing the denizens of its streets. Nihilistic despair rises from the sewers and permeates the air, while corruption and vice ooze from the pores of every piece of brick, mortar, and metal. It’s a seedy world where hope is not unknown but unwelcome. The “city as Hell metaphor” is a benchmark of many a story, but rarely as prevalent as here.  [Ba]Sin City is its own dark dystopia divorced from the real world, its citizens enmeshed in its seductive embrace with no way out save one.

This place is Disney World by comparison… 

Each scene is meticulously and (dare I say) lovingly rendered (with some, as in the first film, practically lifted from the panels of the comics) as if a visually lyrical painting. This attention to detail is evident from the opening scene, which serves as the synopsis for the entire experience: an act of brutal violence rendered in over-the-top animation, with Mickey Rourke's gravelly voice-over describing the unfolding events, his raspy delivery teetering between sincerity and mockery; a confluence of the disturbing and the comical. It leaves you feeling like you have to take a much needed shower even as you revel in the opportunity to get dirty. 
Oooooo, baby…. 

Like the original, the film is made up of vignettes from the original comics which are only tangentially connected within the film’s framework.  Despite a couple of pacing issues, the stories draw you in even as they balance the tightrope between straight treatment and ludicrousness. The majority of the tales ("Just Another Saturday Night", "A Dame To Kill For," and "The Long, Bad Night," respectively) take place before the events of the first movie; hence why, for example, the character of Marv is such a big presence in this film. Each story follows a particular character: (1) Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a lucky guy looking to make a statement in Sin City by insinuating himself into a card game headed by the villainous, corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Booth) (2) A pre-plastic surgery Dwight (Josh Brolin, taking over the reins from Clive Owen) being drawn against his better judgment into protecting his femme fatale ex Ava (a perfectly cast Eva Green); (3) a minor sub-plot involving Detective Mort (Christopher Meloni), a cop who is drawn into the Dwight/Ava dynamic; and last but not least Nancy (Jessica Alba), who is filled with rage, remorse, and regret over Hartigan’s (Bruce Wills) self-sacrificial suicide and desires nothing more than to see Senator Roark dead. The actors clearly throw themselves into their work, even if the characters they portray seem joyless. One of the notable exceptions to this is Booth as Roark.  Having played “Phillip Marlowe, Private Eye” on cable in the 80’s, Booth is no stranger to what is required of a noir villain. He revels in his charismatically cruel character, who wears the City’s dark heart like a comfortable, lived-in leather duster.

Come on…you know you want me. 

If Roark is emblematic of the city’s seedy evil pestilence, then Marv is it’s righteous and vengeful wrath; an idea which is crystallized in this film and makes his fate as documented in the first film even more tragic. It’s been a while since Mickey Rourke got top billing in any film, especially in a film that contains luminaries such as Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Josh Brolin among others, but he certainly earns it as he serves as the lynchpin to all the stories. While his character is the most visually excessive, his bearing is surprisingly the most restrained; a pillar of steely calm in an otherwise outrageously manic word, though he explodes into ferocious violence at the drop of a dime. 

Sadly, with the passing of both Michael Clarke Duncan and Brittany Murphy, the parts of Manute and Shellie necessitated recasting, though of more import is the former.  Dennis Haysbert has the thankless task of stepping into Duncan’s large shoes. Haysbert does better in the role than expected; though he lacks some of Duncan’s presence in both stature and menace, he gives enough to be more than effective in the role even if he does imbue the character with a gentlemanly air the Duncan's interpretation lacked.  

Being a killing machine…that’s Allstate’s stand…Are you in good...oh, wait... 

Brolin’s Dwight is a character all his own, which undermines the character’s connection between the two films but still compelling in it's own right. Pay attention as Christopher Lloyd makes a brief but thoroughly enjoyable cameo as Kroenig, who is imagined as a “Doc Brown” who achieved his degree by way of Gotham City U. Levitt's Johnny is cocky brashness, his buoyant demeanor both compliments and contrasts his environs and makes his particular storyline hit all the right emotional beats.

On the surface, A Dame To Kill For seems to be brutally and degradingly misogynistic. But scratch the surface and you’ll find a subversive subtext extolling of female empowerment, for it’s the women who drive the events of the film (directly or otherwise). As the ostensible dame to kill for, Eva Green is sublime both in visuals (which the film browbeats with as many lovingly rendered nude shots of her as humanly possible*) and in performance; the acting that was derided in Dark Shadows serves her well here, giving her character much needed bite. Rosario Dawson returns as Gail, who’s not given as much to do this time around but gleefully makes the most of it.  Of all the returning players, Bruce Wills as the ghostly Hartigan is the most marked in terms of real-time age. However, his worn and haggard look serves the character well, lending a spectral, heavy gravitas to what amounts to an extended cameo. but who's presence fuels Jessica Alba's Nancy, giving focus to her character's pain and overall wretchedness. She in turns seethes and despairs, transitioning between both sans subtlety.  She's given more to do here than in the last film, and it is her story that drives the film's final arc; one which borrows an element from The Sopranos and, in keeping with this film's tonality, uses it to better effect. 

As a whole, the actors teeter on the verge of parody, but for the most part Rodriguez reins them in just enough to remind the viewer that this is a world of unreality where none of this is to be taken seriously. His judicious yet sparse use of color in a world of literal black-and-white reinforces this sense of fantasy, even as the black-and-white merge into an oppressive, overriding grey. The original score by Rodriguez and collaborator Carl Thiel use the noir hallmarks of brass and woodwinds and ratchet them to the nth degree, further heightening the sense of foreboding. 

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is not just another comic book movie. It’s a film that plays with different opposing motifs and styles, blending them into a fully realized world. There’s no in-between: It’s a film you will either love or hate for it's not a "fun" film in the conventional sense. It is lurid, apprehensive, and morbidly bleak. It is also a vivid, extremely well-crafted and executed piece of modern noir. While the characters are not as well-defined as in the first outing (which is disappointing but expected given the enormity of the cast), the performances are solid. This is a film that must be watched in 3D as it is one of the rare films that deserves the technological treatment (keep a special eye out for the opening credits and a pool scene). It balances macabre hopelessness with wry absurdity.  It’s a film that is a combination of conflicting styles that is not afraid to laugh at itself, making for a cinematic experience that is uniquely it’s own.

*Not that I'm complaining.
**Special thanks to Marjorie Lepowsky of Chatterbox Productions for her thoughts on technological advancement.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

NOSTALGIA ONLY GOES SO FAR: "The Expendables 3" Is Still Enjoyable Despite Being Run Of The Mill [Minor Spoilers]

There's a problem that is inherent with premises based on a gimmick. A gimmick can only go so far. Before 2010, it was practically impossible to conceive of a film that would star a plethora of big screen action heroes from the 80's and 90's; especially given the notorious egos of some (star Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example). Then came the first Expendables, a film that surprised many just by being made in the first place. The second one found the aforementioned 80's action triumvirate engaged in more than just an extended cameo sequence, and added Jean-Claude Van Damme to the mix for what was to have been a career comeback. The gimmick of seeing all these stars together in one blockbuster blowout, with tongue-in-cheek references to actor-specific action tropes, mitigated the need for an engaging story, much less plot. 

But gimmicks wear out fast, which begets a "been there, done that" ennui; which is something that star and primary screenwriter Sylvester Stallone knows better than most. Say what you will about the actor's skill as a thespian, watch his filmography and one would be hard pressed to deny he knows a thing or two about crafting a story. In The Expendables 3, the team is sent to take out yet another enemy to freedom. However, much to Barney Ross' (Stallone) surprise, it turns out to be Col. Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a personal enemy of Ross; one who was thought long dead.  When he takes out one of the core members of the team, Barney comes to the conclusion that the weight of age and obsolescence hangs over his team like a shroud and disbands The Expendables to forced retirement including himself, but not before he settles his score with Stonebanks. To that end, with the help of recruiter Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), Ross recruits a whole new team made of members under the age of thirty. However, things do not go as planned. 

One of the more interesting aspects about this film series is it's metatextual commentary on the action film in general, but the ageist aspect of its performers in particular, which have often been played to humorous effect. The normal rule regarding trilogies is that the third film spins the central conceit of the two films that preceded it. Whereas The Expendables and The Expendables 2 were all about showing that the old guard still had what it took to get the action job done, The Expendables 3 postulates their awareness that perhaps their time has run its course, at least in Barney's mind. So the Expendables become "The Replaceables" with much younger, equally capable, and more tech savvy counterparts. Without giving too much away, it's a given that both generations overcome their animosity towards each other and band together to stop Stonebank's machinations. However, the path to the getting there is somewhat pat and disjointed.  An action-packed first act leads in to a plodding recruitment second act that meanders and tries to find its footing. It's only when the teams finally blend is when the balls-to-the-walls action fest really begins, and this despite a number of plot holes big enough to shoot a missile through.

Characterization has never really been much of an issue for this series, since the entire premise has been comic book-ish in the most basic sense of the term. Yet despite director Patrick Hughes best efforts, this installment suffers from too many characters (some more thinly realized than others) with too little time for their development. All the original Expendables (Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren) return and are their usual, reliable selves. Among the newcomers, the stand outs are former Stallone antagonists Wesley Snipes as "Doctor Death", a maniac ex-member of the original Expendables team, and a manic, looney tunes cartoon come to life Antonio Banderas as a talkative, hyperactive "assassin" who doubles as an anti-aging infomercial guru. Harrison Ford, on the other hand, stiffly walks in and flies a chopper in a manner reminiscent of a scene he's done before but looks bored as hell doing it. On the youngsters side, MMA Ronda Rousey makes an impressive big screen debut, kicking ass as powerfully as her male counterparts.While Kellan Lutz of Twilight and The Legend of Hercules plays "Smilee" as the stereotypical heroic maverick with a heart of gold and ostensible Barney Ross protege.  Mel Gibson relishes his role as the most formidable of The Expendables villains, playing Stonebanks as a mirror universe Martin Riggs. Like most other actors of this franchise, his character's backstory parallels the actor's persona, but used to menacing effect.

In the end, The Expendables 3 is less an actual action movie and more of a string of scenes of a bunch of fan-favorite guys (and girl) getting together to have fun doing what they do best: chew scenery, fire guns, beat the bad guys to submission, blow stuff up, and give pithy comebacks while doing it.  All in all, it's a fun movie...really, what more could you want from an Expendables film?