The Forbidden Kingdom


Clash of Titans.

Clash of Titans.

(2008) Martial Arts Fantasy (Lionsgate) Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Collin Chou, Liu Yifei, Li Bingbing, Morgan Benoit, Deshun Wang, Yu Yuan Zeng, Xiao Dong Mei, XiaoLi Liu, Juana Collignon, Jack Posobiec, Thomas McDonnell, Zhi Ma Gui, Shen Shou He, Bin Jiang, Michelle Du, Crystal Kung, Jia Xu Wei, Ju Shi Xiao, Meng Guo, Alexis Bridges. Directed by Rob Minkoff

It takes great courage to become more than what you are and while that is rare, it does happen. Sometimes it comes from the most unlikely of people.

Jason Tripitikas (Angarano), a resident of a tough neighborhood in South Boston, loves martial arts films. He longs to be like the ancient heroes of China, with Kung Fu skills bordering on the supernatural. The sad reality is, however, that he is afraid, not confident in himself and while very knowledgeable about the various styles and moves of his martial arts heroes, is unable to put them into practice.

He often visits a pawn shop in Chinatown where the elderly proprietor (Chan) often stocks rare and out of print martial arts movies of the Shaw Brothers era. When Lupo (Benoit), a neighborhood bully with a hair trigger, discovers that Jason is friends with the pawn shop owner, he forces Jason to use his influence to get his gang into the store for the purpose of robbing the old man. Jason, too afraid to stand up, reluctantly gives in to his tormentor. Once in the store, however, things go horribly wrong. When the thugs are unable to find the store’s money, in a fit of pique Lupo shoots the old man. Jason, realizing that he is next in line, grabs an old staff to help him get away, but he is trapped on the roof with a gun pointed at his head. That’s when things get really crazy.

It turns out that the staff is a powerful magic weapon that once belonged to the immortal Monkey King (Li), and when the mischievous monarch insulted the powerful Jade Warlord (Chou), the Warlord challenged the Monkey King to a martial arts duel, but tricked the Monkey King into putting down his staff. The Warlord then turned the Monkey King into stone, but the Monkey King, just before the Jade Warrior had worked his magic, sent his staff out of his world and into ours. However, once the staff is returned to its rightful owner, the spell would be broken and the Monkey King would end the tyrannical reign of the Jade Warlord.

This is explained to Jason by a wandering drunken scholar (Chan again), who helps Jason escape from soldiers of the Jade Army. They are helped by a beautiful young musician (Yifei) who is on a mission of her own: vengeance against the Jade Warlord, who killed her family. However, en route to the Mountain of the Five Elements, where the Jade Warlord’s palace is, the staff is stolen by the Silent Monk (Li). After a furious fight with the drunken scholar, they at last realize that they have the same mission and agree to join forces and train young Jason in the ways of kung fu. However, they are being tracked by a wicked witch (Bingbing) who has been sent by the Jade Warlord to retrieve the staff and kill those who carry it. With an entire army and wielders of immense supernatural power arrayed against them, how can they restore the staff to the Monkey King and find Jason a way back home?

In many ways, this is Chan’s movie and he carries it strongly, easily falling into the character of the drunken master whom he has played many times in many movies earlier in his career. Li, whose character the Silent Monk is onscreen most of the time, doesn’t get a lot of dialogue and little to do but be stoic in between bouts of kicking derriere. However, when he is in his persona of the Monkey King early in the movie and then again near the very end, he is delightful, showing an impish sense of humor he rarely gets to display.

Yifei is almost supernaturally beautiful, playing the eventual love interest, and when she does get to fight, she holds her own. Bingbing and Chou are both marvelous in their villainous roles, particularly Bingbing who has a vicious kind of charisma. It is Angarano who winds up being the weak link; it isn’t that he’s bad, he’s just very bland. You get no sense of the inner fortitude he must display as the movie progresses, and his transition from timid nebbish to brave warrior just doesn’t work.

The fight sequences are staged by the great Woo-Ping Yuen, who did the same for the Matrix trilogy as well as many legendary Chinese martial arts films. Although there are several wire sequences (for which Yuen is justifiably best known), the movie isn’t dominated by them. Most of the martial arts sequences are staged on the ground. Another Asian legend, cinematographer Peter Pau, is behind the lens, and his vistas of placid Chinese villages and barren deserts are breathtaking. The sequences that take place on the Mountain of the Five Elements utilize some nicely done CGI. The American-Chinese co-production makes use of some of the best aspects of both schools, an advantage the filmmakers use to the fullest.

Chan is absolutely delightful and clearly dominates the movie. While the storyline is a bit complicated, it is told in a fashion that is not and winds up being a lot easier to follow than you might imagine. The smattering of Chinese mythology and fantasy are nicely adapted for the Western palate, although filmgoers better versed in those subjects might get a kick out of some of the in-jokes and homages the filmmakers insert from time to time. Then, of course, there’s the fight sequence between Chan and Li. Even though in many ways both men are past their primes, they deliver a fight that is absolutely breathtaking and while some might find it overly long, true aficionados won’t want the sequence to end.

Director Minkoff, best known for family movies like The Lion King, The Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little, delivers a movie that while fairly violent, is nonetheless suitable for all but the most sensitive. While there are some pretty impressive throw-downs, the violence is almost of a cartoonish nature and there is little blood and almost nobody dies, at least as far as can be seen.

Even Da Queen liked this one, and she’s not a big martial arts fan. The tone is lighthearted enough to keep things from getting too self-important, while not so lighthearted as to become farce. Duly noted are the Wizard of Oz similarities – the hero falling from the sky, meeting a trio of characters and following the road to the Emerald – or Jade, in this case – City. Sure, there are some people who just will not EVER desire to see any sort of martial arts movie, which of course is a matter of taste, although there’s just a hint of film snobbery in that decision. Those that are willing to brave the waters will find some wonderful entertainment here and while not visually in the league of Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower nor as well-made as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nonetheless this is worthy of your entertainment dollar. Spend it wisely, grasshopper.

WHY RENT THIS: Chan is absolutely delightful. Lighthearted tone but not farcical. Nifty CGI.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Angarano doesn’t cut it here. A little bit on the derivative side.
FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of martial arts action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This marks the first time that Asian martial arts legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li have appeared together in the same movie.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: A ton of extras including a blooper real, a retrospective on the careers of Li and Chan and how they almost worked together on several occasions, a look at the Chinese mythology that inspired the story, and a featurette on scouting the gorgeous locations within China. All of these are available both on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of the film.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.9M on a $55M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the West
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday

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The Expendables 3


Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes decide to settle who has the bigger blade.

Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes decide to settle who has the bigger blade.

(2014) Action (Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Jason Statham, Harrison Ford, Kellan Lutz, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Antonio Banderas, Dolph Lundgren, Wesley Snipes, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Ronda Rousey, Kelsey Grammer, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Robert Davi, Ivan Kostadinov, Slavi Slavov, Natalie Burn, Sarai Givaty. Directed by Patrick Hughes

Back in 2010, action fans eagerly awaited the debut of The Expendables which united action heroes from days gone by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, Bruce Willis and of more recent vintage Li and Statham. The novelty factor alone made the movie a big hit but a single soliloquy by Mickey Rourke made the movie more memorable than the average action film.

Then came The Expendables 2 which added Jean-Claude van Damme and Chuck Norris (as well as more recent action star Liam Hemsworth) which was still entertaining in its own way but the novelty was beginning to wear off. Would the pattern continue?

Yeah, it does. While this is the most star-studded of the series, it is also the least fulfilling. I use that term advisedly – The Expendables 3 has a massive dose of testosterone that will grow hair on the chest of a Disney princess, and is surprisingly entertaining but not necessarily in a good way. You can sit back and watch this and take it for what it is, but if what it is doesn’t thrill you so much, you’re in for a long evening.

The team – leader Barney Ross (Stallone), right hand man Lee Christmas (Statham), surly Gunnar Jensen (Lundgren), just as surly Toll Road (Couture) and abs-tastic Hale Caesar (Crews) board a prison train carrying a single prisoner – former Expendable Dr. Death (Snipes). As usual, lots of people get shot and stuff blows up but Team Ex wins out in the end.

But it turns out that the prison break was kind of a side trip on the way to something else. They’ve to head out and intercept a shipment of bombs from an arms dealer, who turns out to be Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson) who just happened to co-found the Expendables before turning rogue and going out on his own. That job turns out to be something of a cluster frump and gets one of the team shot and in critical condition. Shaken up, Barney decides to retire the team and find a new one.

He needs one because their CIA contact Drummer (Ford) wants Stonebanks picked up alive and taken to the Hague to answer for his crimes. That’s easier said than done however and while Barney’s new team – including tech wizard Thorn (Powell), chatterbox Spanish killing machine Galgo (Banderas), team muscle Mars (Ortiz), beautiful but deadly Luna (Rousey) and anti-authoritarian potential team leader Smilee (Lutz) has more of a modern edge to them, they don’t do any better than the first team and things go sideways in a hurry. It will take the old team to rescue the new team and a final mano a mano brawl between Stonebanks and Barney to settle this once and for all.

Da Queen, being a pragmatic sort (and a bit of a masochist) decided to count up the ludicrous scenes in the movie when something that simply was too much of a stretch of the imagination to ignore; the end figure was in double digits. I can take a certain suspension of disbelief; after all, I used to love those ’80s action epics as much as the next guy. However, there comes a point where you’re inner brain starts to say “come on, you can’t be serious” to your testicles (or the female approximation of same) and the action fix begins to clash with your inner need for some sort of logic. How much you like the movie will depend on how bad you need an action fix.

Stallone, clean-shaven for the first time in the trilogy, looks every bit an AARP member at this point. There are several close-ups on his trademark sneer and as his righteous anger leeks out from his upper lip and into his eyeballs, you can tell he’s going to go all Rambo on somebody’s ass. Statham, not so nearly long in the tooth, merely looks uncomfortable most of the way through – perhaps that’s because he was involved in a near-fatal truck crash when the brakes on the truck he was driving in the movie failed and he was forced to abandon truck before it crashed into the sea.

I will say that the much-maligned Gibson fares the best here, channeling his Martin Riggs from back in the day and if Riggs were a villain in the Lethal Weapon series this is how he’d have turned out. He’s actually pretty fun to watch although I imagine that those who still haven’t gotten over his anti-Semitic drunken rant to the cops will be less sanguine about his performance. Snipes, recently released from prison, reminds us why he was such a great action star in the first place. I thought at one time he had the potential to be as big as Will Smith, although a series of bad roles and poor life choices derailed that. It still might happen though – he could use his performance here as an audition tape for any action movie in the offing and get serious consideration. He also has the best line in the movie; when asked by Toll Road what he was in prison for. I won’t tell you what he responds because the surprise is half the fun.

There is some CGI here and they must have done it on somebody’s Commodore VIC-20 because it is absolutely miserable, some of the worst I’ve ever seen. For example, for the scene near the movie’s end where he is hanging from a winch cable on a helicopter as the chopper pulls away from the camera, I’d much rather have stopped the scene with him dangling underneath it asking his snarky teammates to winch him up now right at that point instead of seeing a clearly CGI silhouette of the copter with the distant semi-humanoid figure and cable being sucked into the helicopter like a strand of spaghetti. I don’t like my action reality messed with.

This is a series whose novelty has run its course and needs to survive simply on the success of its action sequences and the quirkiness of its characters. For one thing, too many characters get virtually no screen time (Li shows up near the end and gets three or four lines and no fighting sequences which is a complete waste of his talents) and while the cast members are pretty able individually, the whole isn’t equal to the sum of its parts.

REASONS TO GO: Definite testosterone overload.

REASONS TO STAY: Super predictable and super brainless. Some of the worst CGI ever. Novelty has worn off.

FAMILY VALUES:  Oh yes, all sorts of violence with guns, blades, you name it – mayhem deluxe. There’s also a fair amount of language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Expendables film not to be rated R.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Commando

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Code Name: The Cleaner

New Releases for the Week of August 15, 2014


The Expendables 3THE EXPENDABLES 3

(Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas. Directed by Patrick Hughes

The Expendables are back in action and this time they’re up against a foe who knows them better than anyone – Conrad Stonebanks, a ruthless arms dealer who once upon a time co-founded the Expendables along with Barney. This is a shock to Barney who thought Conrad was dead but since it was Barney that tried to kill him, Stonebanks has an awful mad-on about the Expendables and is out to put them all down once and for all. Barney’s going to need a little help against the well-financed and merciless teams of mercenaries that Stonebanks has sent against them – and welcome to a group of new Expendables, more tech savvy, younger and faster than the classic team. Old School, meet New School.

See the trailer, interviews, a featurette, a clip and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for violence including sustained gun battles and fight scenes, and for language)

The Giver

(Weinstein) Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard. In the future, mankind lives in a Utopian community where hunger and poverty have been eradicated and while colorless conformity is the rule, contentment is the reward. However, a young man discovers that the community has a dark and secret past and that only one man – the Giver – has custodianship of those memories and he intends to hand them off to the young man. That makes him dangerous to the elders of the community who will stop at nothing to take him out. He’ll have to escape the community – something that’s never been done before – in order to save it.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence)

Let’s Be Cops

(20th Century Fox) Damon Wayans Jr., Jake Johnson, Rob Riggle, Nina Dobrev. A pair of bros have been invited to a costume party and decide to go as cops. Mistaken for the real thing, they decide they like the way the rest of the world treats them as cops and so they’ll keep on going as long and as far as they can take it. Of course, the real cops don’t take kindly to this and they wind up with a heaping helping of T-R-O-U-B-L-E with a capital T.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity, violence and drug use)

Singham Returns

(Reliance) Kareena Kapoor, Ajay Devgn, Anupam Kher, Amole Gupte. A police officer with a reputation for honesty but also for being ferocious with wrongdoers is promoted to Deputy Chief of Police. Dead set on wiping out injustice in his town, he comes up smack dab against not only wealthy criminals but corruption in his own department.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood Action

Rating: NR

What If

(CBS) Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall. After a series of failed relationships, a young medical school drop-out still trying to find out who he is decides to put his love life on hold. Of course, most of his friends then seem to find the perfect partner for themselves which makes him feel miserable and alone, but then he meets this great girl whom he connects with immediately. The trouble is that she lives with her boyfriend. Still, the two become best friends but maybe that’s not enough.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including references throughout, partial nudity and language)

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (Bai she chuan shuo)


Not all the great visuals are CGI.

Not all the great visuals are CGI.

(2011) Martial Arts Fantasy (Magnet) Jet Li, Raymond Lam, Eva Huang, Charlene Choi, Zhang Wen, Vivian Hsu, Miriam Yeung Chin Wah (voice) Kar-Ying Law, Suet Lam (voice), Chapman To, Wu Jiang (voice), Gao Hai Bo, Yin You Can, Li Dan, Han Dong. Directed by Siu-Tung Ching

China has a rich and varied history of lore and legend from which they periodically draw inspiration for their films. Fantasy is huge in China, and with a whole pantheon of demons, monsters and God-like creatures to choose from, it’s no wonder that some of the best fantasy films in recent years have come from there. So where does this one stand.

A young herb-gatherer with ambitions of one day becoming a doctor named Xu Xian (R. Lam) is observed picking herbs in the bucolic mountains by White Snake (Huang), a thousand-year-old snake demon who is curious about humans. Her mischievous sister Green Snake (Choi) decides to play a trick on poor old Xu, appearing to him as he climbs up a particularly treacherous section of the mountain which startles the would-be physician so badly that he falls off the mountain and into the lake below. White, realizing that the herb gatherer will drown because of her sister’s prank, goes down into the lake in human form and kisses Xu, not only imparting oxygen to the young man but also part of her vital essence.

Xu can’t stop thinking about his savior nor can White stop thinking about Xu much to Green’s amused disgust. With the dragon boat festival in full swing, White decides she needs to see Xu and Green somewhat bemusedly agrees to help.

Fahai (Li), abbot of the Lei Feng Pagoda, has spent his life tracking down and capturing demons. His apprentice Neng Ren (Wen) is a little bit impetuous and not nearly as strong as his master. While chasing a group of bat demons, Neng meets up with Green without realizing she’s  a demon. White at last with Green’s help finds Xu and decides to reveal to him that she is the one that saved him that day. The two wind up getting married.

This is something Fahai cannot allow as it violates every principle of human-demon relations. Only ill can come of this and he does everything in his power to prevent the union from continuing. White’s love for Xu will have devastating consequences both for him, the Pagoda and possibly for all of China unless Fahai can make things right.

Ching is best known for directing Chinese Ghost Story along with being an action choreographer on several well-known Chinese films. Here he pulls out all the stops in a movie that is drenched with CGI as animated demons, sometimes in the form of their animal totems and sometimes in human shape (the Asian cut of the film features much more of the latter; the American cut has more of the former which is a bit jarring as they come off as kind of Disneyesque creatures with juvenile voices).

Li has progressed into more gruff old man kinds of roles – a decade ago he would have been the herbalist. Although he is no longer as youthful as he once was, he is still as graceful a martial artist as has ever been on the screen and his moves are still just as fluid and economical as they ever were. Plus he has the experience of decades of screen time not to mention his own natural charisma that you just can’t teach.

Lam is a big star in the East but little known here, but he makes for an engaging Xu. His character is a bit naive, a bit unobservant and a bit of a bumbler but fiercely loyal and remarkably brave and selfless. Lam conveys all of that with an easygoing charm. He doesn’t have quite the martial arts proficiency of Li (but in all fairness very few people on the planet do – including those who are martial arts masters) but he pulls off his fight scenes pretty well.

Like most Chinese heroines Huang has an ethereal beauty that is breathtaking. Her sensuality is more coy than overt, a bit schoolgirl-ish at times but there’s no denying her emotional intensity, particularly in her last scenes of the film. I’ve always been partial to Michelle Yeoh among Asian actresses but Huang certainly is one to watch.

Nearly every scene is laden with special effects of the CGI variety. They are less concerned with the realistic nature of CGI in the east than they are here so in some ways the effects look less practiced than they do on major Hollywood films but they get the job done. The fight scenes, surprisingly, are less compelling; the choreography is almost an afterthought and there isn’t a lot of care given to those scenes seemingly, which is extremely disappointing.

Still, this is a movie worth seeing. It’s available on VOD right now and in theaters in selected cities. Martial arts fans will no doubt be making a beeline to see anything with Li in it to begin with but to see a major production such as this with such a venerated director. This isn’t the best work by either of them, but it’s good enough to take the time to find it.

REASONS TO GO: Somewhat sweet-natured and inventive. Always good to see Li.

REASONS TO STAY: Fight scenes are disappointingly banal. Special effects not up to Western standards.

FAMILY VALUES:  Action of a fantasy variety, a few images that might be too disturbing for the very young and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li complained later that this was one of his most tiring roles because most of his fighting opponents were women for whom he’d have to hold back some but who would go all out on him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the reviews are pretty dismal.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart 2013 Day One

The Expendables 2


The Expendables

Chuck Norris jut made that car burst into flames with the power of his steely-eyed glare.

(2012) Action (Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Liam Hemsworth, Nan Yu, Jet Li, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude van Damme, Chuck Norris, Scott Adkins, Charisma Carpenter, Amanda Ooms, Nikolette Noel. Directed by Simon West

 

Back in the 70s and 80s, action movies were at their pinnacle. Movies like The Terminator, Rambo, Die Hard, Timecop and Missing in Action were box office bonanzas. As time went on and the men who played those heroes aged, the popularity of these sorts of movies began to wane. Although new heroes like Jet Li and Jason Statham took those action spots, action heroes were as likely to star in family movies geared towards kids as they were in old fashioned shoot ’em ups.

In 2010, Sylvester Stallone wrote and directed The Expendables, an ensemble action movie uniting some of the biggest action heroes of the last 30 years, including Stallone, Statham, Willis, Schwarzenegger, Li, Mickey Rourke and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Just getting those names onto the big screen together was a feat in and of itself and it ignited the imaginations of fanboys all over the world. Schwarzenegger was still Governor of California at the time and hadn’t been in a movie for six years.

The movie was a big hit and of course plans for a sequel rolled around. Rourke dropped out, van Damme and Norris signed up (as did Liam Hemsworth) and Stallone relinquished the director’s chair to veteran action director West, who has Con-Air to his credit among others – the Stallion wanted to concentrate on writing – and here we go again.

This time, the Expendables – led by Barney Ross (Stallone) and his right hand man Lee Christmas (Statham)  are on a mission to rescue a Chinese billionaire and gets an extra added bonus attraction. Shortly thereafter, Ross has a meeting with Church (Willis) to whom Ross owes a favor – and Church aims to collect. He wants Barney’s team to head to Bulgaria to find a downed plane which was carrying a safe. The contents of the safe are something Church wants very much. He sends computer expert Maggie (Yu) along to help open the safe.

But things go south. They are intercepted by Vilain (van Damme) who also wants the contents of the safe. One of the Expendables doesn’t make it out of the encounter alive. Barney and the boys don’t take too kindly to it. They want that which is stolen from them but also they want payback. And we all know what payback is.

One of the problems with movies like this is that so many characters is that many of them get short shrift in screen time. That was also the complaint with the first movie in which Willis and Schwarzenegger only appeared in one scene. They have considerably more time onscreen this time out and get to do what we all wanted them to do in the first movie – shoot stuff up. But what the filmmakers giveth the filmmakers taketh away – Jet Li literally parachutes out of the movie after a single scene.

And there’s a whole lot of that. And if that’s all that you’re after, you’ve found nirvana here. The story is pretty….well, non-descript. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before and no way you’re not going to figure out what’s going to happen next at every turn. And let’s face it – none of these guys are known for being amazing actors. But that’s not why you’d go and see a movie like this.

But still in all, the last movie had Mickey Rourke to elevate it. He gave a soliloquy during the first movie that still gives me the shivers it’s so good. There’s nothing like that here. I will admit that watching Chuck Norris save the day (as he does twice) put a huge smile on my face. There’s even a Chuck Norris fact for your cinematic enjoyment – it’s the one about the cobra, for those who are up on such things.

I have to admit that the thrill of seeing these guys together was kind of lost the second time out. It was nice and all but this is essentially a generic by-the-numbers action movie with a high-priced cast. It’s a novelty, but not much more. Sadly, I’m less eager to see The Expendables 3 than I was to see The Expendables 2.

REASONS TO GO: Seeing these old war horses in action again is a hoot.

REASONS TO STAY: Overreliance on catchphrase and cliché. A bit too predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and foul language, a little bit of sensuality too (but not much).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Gunnar Jensen has a degree in chemical engineering. So does the actor who plays him, Dolph Lundgren.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100. The reviews are mixed but trending towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Losers

CATCHPHRASE LOVERS: Iconic catchphrases from action movies, like “I’ll be back” and “Yippie Ki Yay” are all uttered although generally not by the actors who first said them.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Cinema Paradiso

New Releases for the Week of August 17, 2012


August 17, 2012

THE EXPENDABLES 2

(Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Liam Hemsworth, Jean-Claude van Damme. Directed by Simon West

After one of their own is killed, the team of badass mercenaries known as The Expendables set out to kick ass, take names and sip chamomile tea, and they’re all out of tea. So, they decide to rid the world of a whacko who wants to shift the balance of power by stealing weapons grade plutonium. No, not the president of Iran – some other nut job.

See the trailer, clips, a promo and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong violence, language and brief sexuality)

2016: Obama’s America

(Rocky Mountain) Dinesh D’souza, Shelby Steele, Paul Vitz, Alice Dewey. From the conservative author of the book The Roots of Obama’s Rage and the producer of the intelligent design promoting Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed comes this anti-Obama documentary which is, essentially, a series of Fox News talking heads explaining why the president sucks, how his policies will turn America into a barren wasteland and why the people who voted for him did so to prove that they aren’t racist. Michael Moore, you may respond.

See the trailer, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: R (for thematic elements, brief language and smoking images)

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

(Disney) Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Garner, CJ Adams, Rosemarie DeWitt. A childless couple desperate to have a family but unable to, dream up the perfect child and put all their wishes into a box that they bury in the backyard. When a magical storm takes their powerful wish and deposits a child onto their doorstep, their lives – and the lives of those who live in their hometown – are transformed.

See the trailer and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Family

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements and brief language)

ParaNorman

(Focus) Starring the voices of Casey Affleck, John Goodman, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kodi Smit-McPhee. A boy who can see ghosts is the laughing stock of his town. But when a witch’s curse raises the dead, his gift may be the only thing separating his town from utter calamity. This from the people who brought you Coraline.  

See the trailer, clips, promos and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language)

The Queen of Versailles

(Magnolia) Virginia Nebab, David Siegal, Jackie Siegal. Timeshare billionaires decide to build themselves a mansion which turns out to be the largest house in the United States. Their plans are threatened by the economic crash of 2008. The 1% begin to discover life on the other side.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for thematic elements and language)

Sparkle

(Tri-Star) Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Mike Epps. The youngest of three sisters has big musical dreams and the talent to back it up. Not only that, she happens to be in one of the musical meccas of all time – Detroit in the 1960s. Struggling to become a star is hard enough but there are issues besetting her family that threaten to tear it apart.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence, language and smoking)

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor


The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Michelle Yeoh finds that checking out books at the Ancient China branch of the library can be problematical at best.

(2008) Action Adventure Horror (Universal) Brenan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford, John Hannah, Isabella Leong, Chau Sang Anthony Wong, Russell Wong, Liam Cunningham, David Calder, Jessey Meng, Tian Liang.  Directed by Rob Cohen

Movie monsters may come and movie monsters may go, but you can’t keep them down for too long. That, at least in my estimation, is the lesson generated by the first two movies of the Universal Mummy reboot.

The third installment of the series starts off very promising. Evil Chinese emperor (Li) plans to take over the world, but falls in love with sorceress Zi Yuan (Yeoh) who only has eyes for the emperor’s right hand General Ming (R. Wong), which cheeses off the emperor enough to kill his best field general. The emperor apparently never learned not to piss off a sorceress, so on the pretense of making the emperor immortal she instead curses him and his soldiers to turn into clay, and as such they are entombed for four thousand years.

That is, until Alex O’Connell (Ford) comes along. A young, promising archaeologist excavating in China stumbles upon the tomb, one of the most important finds of the 20th century, but in doing so accidentally awakens the emperor who has plans to resume his world domination scheme after a slight delay. Those darn Chinese emperors!

Alex’s parents, Rick (Fraser) and Evelyn (Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz who chose not to return to the role) have been living in wedded bliss for more than a decade since the events of The Mummy Returns. However, they are both unspeakably bored and who wouldn’t be? Anything after a life of danger, adventure, exotic places and of course the undead would seem a bit dull by comparison.

Given the opportunity to return a rare gem to the Chinese people as a gift from the British government, the O’Connell’s head to China to reunite with their son, choosing a bar in Shanghai owned by Evelyn’s ne’er-do-well brother Jonathan (Hannah), which is a mistake in itself. There they are attacked and helped out by Lin (Leong), who turns out to be the daughter of the sorceress and General Ming who inherited her mom’s immortality. Thanks mom!

After witnessing the truly evil nature of the mummy and his human henchman General Yang (C.S.A. Wong), the O’Connell’s realize that they are the only people equipped to deal with yet another outbreak of mummy-ism. They are in turn aided by the sorceress and her yeti pals. This all leads to a big battle by the Great Wall in which the emperor’s soldiers are opposed by the slaves they murdered to build the wall (brought back to life conveniently by the sorceress) and the emperor, who morphs himself into a formidable fire-breathing three-headed dragon. The odds are against the O’Connells and their allies but if you know mummies like they know mummies, you won’t be worried about the whole day-saving thing.

Cohen takes over from Stephen Sommers who helmed the first two movies and does adequately. Cohen is no stranger to big movies, having directed xXx and the original The Fast and the Furious among other things but he doesn’t get to use Vin Diesel here.

Instead, he gets Brendan Fraser and the actor utilizes his considerable charm to make Rick likable despite being a bit of a whiner here. The chemistry between Fraser and Weisz is sorely missed and although Bello is a terrific actress in her own right, she really isn’t right for the role. Quite frankly, her English accent is a bit too upper class for Evelyn, and she comes off as a bit phony. She does look good in the fight scenes at least.

Alex O’Connell has gone from an annoying child in The Mummy Returns to an annoying adult here, so the less said the better. Hannah provides comic relief nicely, but for me the real attraction here is Li and Yeoh. Li is one of the greatest martial artists ever in movies and while he doesn’t get as much time demonstrating his prowess (he’s much too busy being a CGI mummy or dragon), he shines when he does. Yeoh is in my opinion an incredibly gifted actress who is shamefully underrated here in the States. She is, as always, one of the best reasons to see this movie.

There is plenty of eye candy to go around and the action sequences make the movie at least palatable. However, a lot of the sparkle and gee-whiz fun is missing from this movie where it was present in the first two. You get the impression this was just a paycheck for most of the people involved, who are sufficiently talented enough to make this entertaining, but without the spark that would have made this amazing. It’s one of those things where you have good talent, a great concept and skilled filmmakers but it doesn’t add up to the great movie it should have been. Instead, it’s merely adequate.

It’s not good form to compare a movie to the one that you think should have been made, but the movie disappointed me so here you have it. It’s certainly worth a look if you haven’t already seen it, but don’t expect to have your socks blown off. Your footwear is quite safe this time.

WHY RENT THIS: Spectacular effects and some amazing fight scenes. Any chance to see Li and Yeoh is worth taking. Fraser is as charming as ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bello is miscast somewhat. The story is a bit weak compared to the first two movies.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some action movie-type violence and a few disturbing monster images that might be a bit much for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tomb and the terra cotta warriors are based on the actual tomb of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty in Xi’an, China. The excavations have been going slowly for decades, partially because of traps left by the builders of the tomb, some similar to the ones depicted in the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the actual terra cotta warriors, as well as a trivia track and a U-Control feature called “Know Your Mummy” that compares this movie with the previous two Mummy flicks, the latter two being only on the Blu-Ray edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $401.1M on a $145M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Beginners

War


War

Jason Statham and Jet Li prepare to face off in the tension-free climax.

(2007) Crime Action (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Jet Li, John Lone, Devon Aoki, Kane Kosugi, Luis Guzman, Saul Rubinek, Ryo Ishibashi, Sung Kang, Nadine Velazquez, Andrea Roth, Matthew St. Patrick, Mark Cheng, Terry Chen. Directed by Phillip G. Atwell.

There are Asian martial arts movies, and then there are American martial arts movies. Asian ones tend to be way over the top, nonstop action sequences with plots that are almost an afterthought, more of an excuse to move the story from one action sequence to the next. American martial arts movies tend to be grim thrillers with double and triple crosses, lantern-jawed heroes and more guns than fisticuffs. 

War is an American martial arts movie with a pair of FBI agents – Crawford (Statham) and his partner Lone (Chen) who are monitoring a Triad smuggling operation into San Francisco when all Cleveland breaks out. Gunmen have come on the scene and turned it into a war zone. Lone wants to take a closer look, but the more cautious Crawford wants to wait for backup. Still, a closer look might not be a bad idea, so they go in and encounter a great deal of carnage. When Crawford spots a single bullet casing, he realizes that this is the work of the near-legendary assassin Rogue (Li), who was trained by the CIA and then turned on his handlers, becoming a mercenary for hire. By this time, however, it’s too late – Rogue shoots Crawford and is preparing to deliver the coup de gras when Lone rescues Crawford and shoots Rogue in the face, apparently killing him.

But of course, in an action movie, even people who are shot in the face don’t die, and a none-too-pleased Rogue pays Lone a visit, murdering his entire family and setting his home ablaze. Crawford is devastated by the fate of his partner.

Three years later, Crawford has obsessed over bringing the elusive Rogue to justice, but Rogue has fallen off the radar. His obsession has cost him his own marriage, as his wife (Roth) is happy to remind him. Still, even without Rogue, Crawford has a great deal to keep him busy. In addition to the Triads, run by Chang (Lone), the Japanese Yakuza have moved into the area, whose boss is the Japan-based Shiro (Ishibishi) who sends his daughter Kira (Aoki) to prepare his American operations for his arrival. 

Chang and Shiro are blood enemies; Shiro engineered the massacre of Chang’s family in Hong Kong and stole millions of dollars of art and artifacts from their home, all of which he has sold save for two ancient miniature statues of horses, made of gold. Shiro wants to sell these last two items as well, but nobody in Asia will buy them now that Chang has once again risen to prominence. So, he decides to sell them in America. Unfortunately, Rogue – now back on the scene – has apparently switched sides, having left Shiro’s employ for Chang’s. This act alone sets off a chain of events that leads to an all-out war between the Yakuza and the Triad, with many innocents caught in the crossfire. For Crawford, none of this matters – his chance to administer final justice to Rogue is at hand.

Where to begin here? This is a completely wasted opportunity. Statham and Li are two of the most charismatic action stars today, but most of their action sequences require little of them but to snarl and shoot. The script is a hodgepodge of action thriller cliches and forced twists and turns. The only real interesting twist here is Rogue’s identity (revealed in the final reel); the ending is terrible and essentially reveals that all the drama evolved from one of the main characters’ completely out-of-character actions. This plot point is so preposterous that you can only throw popcorn at the screen and boo or hiss, or whatever it is you do to reflect your displeasure at movie theaters. 

Statham and Li were both coming off of terrific performances, Li in Fearless and Statham in Crank, but they seem oddly flat here. The whole movie is building for their climactic encounter, but when it finally comes, it’s anticlimactic. There is almost no fighting nor is there any chemistry. Interestingly enough, the two would spend time on the same side in last summer’s The Expendables.

Atwell is making his feature debut; previously he directed music videos and quite frankly, he has problems keeping the story flowing over the length of the film. The whole subplot involving Benny (Guzman) and the plastic surgeon (Rubinek) is superfluous and unnecessary, much as having both “superfluous” and “unnecessary” in the same sentence is. While on the plus side he doesn’t have the tendency of most music video directors to use endless quick-cutting and surreal or symbolic passages, he doesn’t really show he has an aptitude for action.

That’s not to say that the movie is totally without merit. There are some nice sequences with Statham and his FBI team, and Aoki makes for a menacing baddie but for the most part, this is just wasted opportunity.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice sequences. Lots of bullets flying.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Little or no chemistry. Plot is too cliché or overloaded with twists. Ending is preposterous. Soundtrack is barely listenable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence, some of it fairly gruesome and also a good deal of sex, some of it fairly gruesome.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title for the movie was originally Rogue which Screen Gems changed to avoid confusion with a killer crocodile movie that Dimension was releasing more or less at the same time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains a trivia track and a gag reel.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Miss Potter

The Expendables


The Expendables

Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone and Randy Couture are all puzzled by the awful smell coming from the ceiling.

(Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Giselle Itie, Mickey Rourke, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Charisma Carpenter, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Zayas, Gary Daniels. Directed by Sylvester Stallone

When we reach a certain age, we have a tendency to say things along the lines as “they don’t make them like that anymore” more and more often. In some cases, it’s just our memories of things from the past that color our perceptions. Once in awhile, we’re actually right – they don’t make them like that anymore.

Case in point, The Expendables. This is the kind of action movies that filled theaters with cheering, chest-pounding men and the women who put up with them. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to cook some meat on an open flame, use power tools to make things that needed to be fixed even more broken, and drink several beers while watching football. You know, man things.

There’s a plot here but really, do you care? You’ve got Stallone leading a bunch of mercenaries into a fictional South American country to rescue a brave woman (Itie) with his besties at his side – mostly Statham and Li but also including Couture and Crews – against some rogue CIA agents (Roberts and Austin).  We’ve seen it more than once already this summer alone.

One of the big draws is a single scene in which Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger gather together in a church to essentially set up the story. It’s early on in the movie, last only a few minutes and then Willis and Schwarzenegger disappear forever from the movie. Still, you get an insane kick out of seeing these three action icons of the 80s and 90s together for the first time, with Stallone even getting in a jab at Schwarzenegger’s political aspirations.

Then there’s Mickey Rourke. Having seen his career resurrected in The Wrestler and further enhanced by Iron Man 2, he plays a semi-retired Expendable who runs a tattoo parlor slash garage where his old merc buddies get together to reminisce. He has a scene that he talks about why he got out of the game and gives at least a little insight into the toll of war on old warriors. Stallone, to his credit, centers the camera on a tight close-up on Rourke’s face except for a brief reaction shot, but essentially the entire speech is shot that way. It’s a stunning moment, one you wouldn’t expect to find in an action film like this and it serves to elevate the movie all by its lonesome.

Mainly though, this is about blowing things up, stabbing people every which way, kicking, punching and shooting people with guns, rocket launchers and whatever else is handy. The action is way over-the-top, loud and aggressive – in short, the way it used to be. You don’t have time to really think about how hurling an artillery shell at a helicopter with your bare hands isn’t likely to do much damage, let alone blow it up but Crews does just that and you pound your chest and grunt like a good monkey when he does.

Some of the fight scenes, particularly during the last battle, were difficult to follow. Stallone chose to use a more modern handheld camera approach, not realizing perhaps that the style was something of a novelty to begin with; combined with quick cuts, you get the sensation that the entire battle scene is hurtling by your head without really sticking onscreen. At times, you can’t tell who’s battling who, and it’s a shame because you wind up missing some of Jet Li’s martial arts moves which are unbelievable to begin with.

Still, this is a movie that will quell that action Jones you may have been craving for years now. I could actually feel my testicles swelling up while the movie was going on. Not an unpleasant sensation, let me tell you.

REASONS TO GO: A throwback action movie that gives you more bang for your buck than any action film this past summer.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the fight scenes (particularly in the climactic battle) were filmed with handheld cameras and were insanely difficult to follow, so quickly were they cut.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of action, lots of violence, lots of things go boom and lots of hand-to-hand mayhem. A few swear words too; probably older teens will be fine with this, but the very young should stay away.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene with Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis was filmed on October 24, 2009 and took six hours to film. Willis was in the midst of filming Cop Out and was given a pass by director Kevin Smith to appear in The Expendables; Schwarzenegger declined to accept any pay for his role, doing it as a favor to his longtime friend Stallone. It was Schwarzenegger’s first movie appearance in six years, since Around the World In 80 Days.

HOME OR THEATER: Big explosions should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Taking Woodstock

New Releases for the Week of August 13, 2010


August 13, 2010

One of the evil ex-Boyfriends eats some Kroww.

SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD

(Universal) Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman, Alison Pill. Directed by Edgar Wright

When a slacker falls in love with a girl he should rightly have no chance with, to his delight it turns out she has feelings for him as well. Unfortunately, she has seven evil ex-Boyfriends who don’t take kindly to a bass-playing interloper, so Scott Pilgrim is going to need to nut up and take on the world…or at least, seven evil ex-Boyfriends. Fortunately, he has genius director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) guiding his way.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for stylized violence, sexual content, language and drug references)

Countdown to Zero

(Magnolia) Jimmy Carter, James Baker III, Tony Blair, Valerie Plame Wilson. Most people believe that when the Cold War ended, so did the threat of nuclear annihilation. After all, both superpowers have embarked on a mutual disarmament program. However, the fact of the matter is that more nations have nuclear weapons than ever before and many more have the technical capabilities of manufacturing their own. Terrorist groups are actively seeking fissionable material to construct their own Weapons of Mass Destruction and the possibility of a dreadful accident caused by human error grows every day. This documentary serves to educate people on the remaining nuclear threat – and to urge the world to demand zero nuclear weapons on the planet.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG (for thematic material, images of destruction and incidental smoking)

Eat Pray Love

(Columbia) Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, James Franco, Viola Davis. A woman trapped in an unfulfilling marriage – heck, an unfulfilling life – decides to chuck everything in an attempt to go find herself. Apparently herself is hiding in India, Italy or Indonesia. It’s always in the last place you look, I say. In any case, it’s based on the bestselling book of the same name.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language, some sexual references and male rear nudity)

The Expendables

(Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Bruce Willis. A highly skilled mercenary team goes on what seems to be a routine mission; to overthrow the bloodthirsty dictator of a small South American island nation. Betrayed by a rogue CIA agent, the team is forced to leave behind an innocent woman who will surely die for helping them. They must either walk away or turn around and finish what they started. In addition to the guys listed above, the cast reads like a who’s who of action movie stars, including the Governator himself – Arnold Schwarzenegger – in a cameo role.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some language)

Nora’s Will

(Menemsha) Fernando Lujan, Veronica Langer, Silvia Mariscal, Juan Pablo Medina. A man finds out that his wife of 30 years whom he lost contact with after an acrimonious divorce has committed suicide and left him executor of her estate. Due to religious obligations, the burial must take place immediately or else wait five days before she can be laid to rest. Preparing for the funeral, the man finds a mysterious photograph that will take him on an unexpected journey.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: NR