The Great Wall


Matt Damon steels himself.

(2017) Adventure (Universal/Legendary) Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng, Xuan Huang, Ryan Zheng, Karry Wang, Cheney Chen, Pilou Asbæk, Numan Acar, Johnny Cicco, Yu Xiantian, Bing Liu. Directed by Zhang Yimou

 

The battles that shape the future of humanity don’t always take place in plain sight. Sometimes they remain hidden away whether to keep people from panicking or because it suits the leadership of those involved to have those battles take place behind great walls.

William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) are European mercenaries who are tasked with going to China to obtain gunpowder, a technology not yet available in the West. Along the way their party is attacked by a vicious iguana-like monster that William slays. As they venture further into China they are captured and taken before a general (Zhang). Most of the commanders including Lin Mae (Jing), the general’s right hand, believe these men to be thieves come to rob China of her secrets but the general is impressed enough with William’s feat of monster slaying that he refrains from executing them but the men are imprisoned as the army of the Nameless Order are on the eve of a desperate battle – one against an overwhelming army of those same creatures that William slew only in vast numbers.

The two Westerners are befriended by Ballard (Dafoe), a former Jesuit who has been retained by the general as a translator. The odds are against the army and if the monsters who are called Tei Tao break through the Great Wall, there is nothing between them and Beijing and from there they can go onto overrun the entire planet. William, recognizing that here is finally a war worth fighting, sways Lin Mae and soon the two are planning the final stand against the horde but William observes a means where the day might yet be saved.

Yimou is one of China’s most revered directors, best known in the West for his amazing opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics but among film buffs he has a resume that includes some of the most visually impressive films of the last 20 years. Given an astronomical budget by Chinese standards, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and the backing of a major studio it is not surprising that this was a movie I’ve been anticipating for the past few years. Unfortunately, despite all the elements in its favor the movie proves to be a disappointment.

The CGI creatures are unconvincing and look like CGI creatures. There’s nothing organic about them. We see entire hordes of them swarming like ants and the bird’s eye view of the swarm should be terrifying or at least intimidating but it comes off looking phony. If you’re going to fight monsters, they should at least look like they are actually alive and dangerous.

The chemistry between Damon and Pascal is nearly non-existent; the banter between the two sounds forced and unconvincing. Damon affects a bizarre accent that sounds like an Irishman who’d lived half his life in Nebraska. His Boston Irish accent in Good Will Hunting was far more authentic. I get a sense that Pascal is frustrated that his character has little or no depth to it and ends up being a generic second banana. They could have gotten a banana to play the role for all the personality the writers gave the part.

The color-coded armies that make up the Nameless Order are far more impressive and when Yimou is directing major battle sequences with soldiers bungee jumping upside down into the very mouths of the creatures the movie is far more thrilling. While he set design is largely muted, Yimou gets to go extravagant on his Forbidden City sets and he seems more comfortable with those.

This is a movie that fails to showcase Yimou’s visual sense to its fullest and inserts a badly miscast Damon in a role that seems to exist mainly to placate studio bosses unsure of making a movie made in China with a mainly Chinese cast as a tentpole; in fact, the release date was eventually moved to February after it appeared this was going to be a summer or Holiday release. That proved to be a wise move. Maybe someday a studio with a little bit more sense will let Yimou make an epic movie with a Chinese cast without having to insert a Western actor into the mix. I don’t know that American audiences are ready for that but they seemed to be all right with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A great movie will find its audience.

REASONS TO GO: Yimou has one of the most cinematic eyes in the history of movies.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie overall is kind of a hot mess.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence of a fantasy/war nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lau and Damon played the same role in Infernal Affairs and the Martin Scorsese remake The Departed respectively.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Mine

The Siege of Jadotville


Jamie Dornan leads the charge.

Jamie Dornan leads the charge.

(2016) War Drama (Netflix) Jamie Dornan, Mark Strong, Jason O’Mara, Emmanuelle Seigner, Guillaume Canet, Mikael Persbrandt, Fiona Glascott, Sam Keeley, Michael McElhatton, Conor MacNeill, Roman Raftery, Danny Sapani, Melissa Haiden, Leon Clingman, Conor Quinlan, Mike Noble, Charlie Kelly, Alexander Tops, Fionn O’Shea, Danny Keogh. Directed by Richie Smyth

 

In 1961, shortly after being granted independence from Belgian rule, the Republic of the Congo (today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) suffered internal strife and civil war. Violence broke out almost immediately after independence and Belgium sent in paratroopers to protect white citizens who were fleeing the country, particularly from the Katanga region.

The United Nations, under the leadership of Dag Hammarskjöld (Persbrandt), saw the alarming developments as both the Soviets and NATO began backing rival factions in the Congo. It was decided to deploy a peacekeeping force, the first that the UN had ever done. Composed primarily of Irish troops under the command of Pat Quinlan (Dornan), they reported to the UN Secretary General’s aide Conor Cruise O’Brien (Strong) and were sent to the tiny outpost of Jadotville.

There they found themselves surrounded by rebel forces loyal to Moise Tshombe (Sapani) and under the command of Rene Faulques (Canet), a Belgian mercenary. With no support and in an untenable position, they were ordered to hold Jadotville and for eight days, they did. It was a heroic defense, but it would later be swept under the rug even in Ireland, where the deeds of the soldiers weren’t recognized until 44 years after the events took place.

Dornan is best known for playing Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey but he does a pretty competent job of portraying the resolute but inexperienced Quinlan. The Irish troops refer to themselves as “war virgins” and so they are, most of them having seen no combat in their lives more violent than a Friday night at their local pub. Unlike Grey, Pat Quinlan is a loyal family man with a beautiful wife (Glascott) waiting for him at home and although he has caught the eye of local adviser Madame LaFontagne (Seigner) he remains faithful and if you’ve seen Emmanuelle Seigner before, you’ll understand how difficult a proposition that is.

There are plenty of white actors here that play out the events that were detailed in the book by Declan Power on the siege; however despite the fact that this movie is set in Africa there are virtually no Africans in the cast although Sapani as Tshombe does stand out. Apparently colonialist attitudes are still prevalent in the West.

It has to be said that one sees a war movie for the battle scenes and first-time feature director Smyth does a competent job staging them; there isn’t quite the you-are-there quality of Saving Private Ryan or the horror of Apocalypse Now but nonetheless the scenes are thrilling and suspenseful. Action fans will get their money’s worth.

Still, there is a good deal of chest-thumping and platitude shouting and those items turn this from what could have been an interesting study of an event that history had buried to a standard direct to home video disappointment. It’s not a snoozefest by any stretch of the imagination but I found the movie to be uninspiring and considering what the soldiers went to during the siege and even more to the point after it – events of which are glossed over in an almost criminal fashion. I would have liked to have seen a good movie about the siege and the Congo Crisis but this frankly wasn’t it.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the battle sequences were well-staged. Dornan does a solid job as the lead.
REASONS TO STAY: A slow moving story with too much chest-thumping turns this into movie-of-the-week territory. There are hardly any Africans here to tell this story of events in Africa.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of war violence and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Conor Quinlan, who plays PJ in the movie, is the grandson of the real Pat Quinlan.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Beast
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Accountant

The Magnificent Seven (2016)


Don't ever mess with Denzel.

Don’t ever mess with Denzel.

(2016) Western (MGM/Columbia) Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Hailey Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer, Jonathan Joss, Cam Gigandet, Emil Beheshti, Mark Ashworth, Billy Slaughter, Dodge Prince, Matthew Posey, Dane Rhodes, Jody Mullins, Carrie Lazar. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

We often feel helpless about things. Those in power have too much money, too much power, too many guns. They have control over everything and we basically just have to take it and as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to exist while those who are in charge seem to have it easier and easier, and do more injustice to us with impunity. In a situation like that, who are you gonna call?

In the town of Rose Creek, it’s easy to recognize who is oppressing them; it’s Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), a ruthless industrialist who runs the gold mine outside of town. He has bought and paid for the Sheriff (Rhodes) and treats his miners like slaves. Now he’s turned his sights to the town which he wants to destroy so he can further mine gold deposits he thinks might be there. He is trying to intimidate them into leaving – and it’s largely working, but some of the townspeople are willing to stay and fight. Those must be taught a lesson and that lesson ends with Matthew Cullen (Bomer), a good-hearted farmer, gunned down in front of the church which is also burned out.

His widow, Emma Cullen (Bennett) then goes in search of a gunman who can bring her if not justice at least vengeance. She finds Sam Chisolm (Washington), a duly licensed officer of the court from Wichita, Kansas – or a bounty hunter, which is what he really is. When Emma explains what’s happening in Rose Creek, at first he’s reluctant to get involved – until he finds out who is doing unto the good citizens of Rose Creek. Then he’s ready to take on an army.

He’ll need some tough characters to take on the murderous mercenaries that Bogue has hired. First up is gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt) who essentially owes Chisolm for getting his horse out of hock. After that came sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke) and his associate Billy Rocks (Lee), an immigrant from Asia and an expert with knives. Then there’s the Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and the Comanche brave Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Finally there’s Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), a legendary trapper.

It is seven hard men against an army. When they ride into town, they take Bogue’s men by surprise and take over the town but they know that Bogue, who is in Sacramento at the time, will be back with many, many more men. They train the townspeople to defend themselves and they also liberate the miners who also will make their stand there. But how can they, when the bad guys are so many, so much better armed and so much more experienced at fighting?

This is of course a remake of the classic John Sturges western of 1960 which in itself was a remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai. Fuqua, who directed Washington to an Oscar in Training Day, is a big fan of Westerns in general and The Magnificent Seven was always one of his favorites. Feeling that the themes of tyranny and terrorism were even more apt today than they were in 1960, he took on the daunting task of remaking an iconic Western which in many ways made the career of Steve McQueen (in the Josh Faraday role).

The cast here is pretty top notch. Washington is at the top of his game, channeling Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper. Few actors in Hollywood today can play a badass as effectively as Washington can; despite the 70s porn star mustache, he is intimidating and tough as nails. He also looks pretty freaking good for a man in his 60s.

Pratt like Washington is an enormous star and here he brings his trademark irreverence to the role, making Josh Faraday not just comic relief (which he is occasionally) but a badass in his own right. This role isn’t going to advance his career any further but it isn’t going to knock it backwards either. Pratt has a tendency to play the same role over and over again recently and this is more of the same.

Hawke has a good turn as the sharpshooter whose Civil War experiences haunts him and has made him reluctant to take up the rifle again. For my money though, one of the performances you’ll remember is D’Onofrio, whose high squeaky voice doesn’t sound remotely like what we’re used to from him, but plays Horne honestly and with relative dignity. He just about steals the movie.

Fuqua gets points for casting ethnic actors into the proper roles; a Hispanic actor plays the Mexican, a Korean actor the Asian and an Inuit actor the Native American. There isn’t really any mention of racial prejudices which in that era were prevalent and extreme; few white people would have sought or accepted help from an African American, even if they were desperate, nor would they have looked to Mexican or Native help as well – most white settlers considered all three ethnic groups subhuman. I like the diversity of the cast, but I do think that ethnicity should have been addressed at least somewhat.

The final confrontation between Bogue and his men and the townspeople takes up the bulk of the movie and is epic in scope. There’s some decent fight choreography here and while it doesn’t up the ante in action scenes, it at least distinguishes itself as well staged and exciting. The gunfight is everything you’d want from a climactic battle, so kudos for that.

I don’t think anyone can reasonably expect this movie to be replacing the original in the hearts and minds. I’m pretty sure that isn’t why Fuqua made it. Unfortunately, it will be held up against the original – whether Seven Samurai or the 1960 version – and it will come up short against both of those. However, taken on its own merits it’s not that bad but to be honest not that bad doesn’t measure up when it comes to two classic predecessors.

REASONS TO GO: Washington and Pratt are huge stars. D’Onofrio turns in one of his most interesting performances in years.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing is really added to the source material here. The racism of the era is glossed over.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most westerns, there’s plenty of rootin’, tootin’ and shootin’. There’s also a bit of foul language and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the final score by Oscar winning composer James Horner as he passed away June 22, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Blue Jay

The Legend of Tarzan


Him Tarzan, you Jane...don't you wish!!!

Him Tarzan, you Jane…don’t you wish!!!

(2016) Adventure (Warner Brothers) Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Ben Chaplin, Casper Crump, Sidney Ralitsoele, Osy Ikhile, Mens-Sana Tamakloe, Antony Acheampong, Edward Apeagyei, Ashley Byam, Clive Brunt, Charles Babalola, Yule Masiteng, Mimi Ndiweni, Faith Edwards. Directed by David Yates

 

The pulp era gave us some of our most enduring characters and heroes. From the comic books to the detective novels, iconic characters like The Shadow, The Phantom, Superman, Doc Savage and Conan the Barbarian all were created in that era. Perhaps the famous one of all, however, is Tarzan. Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, he has been active in nearly every medium for nearly a century, from comic books to novels to television shows to of course the movies. Now comes the latest big screen Tarzan adventure, but what would the 21st century make of the pulp hero?

Tarzan (Skarsgård) has left the jungles of Africa and come home with his sweet Lady Jane (Robbie) to England, where he now inhabits his father’s title and mansion, and these days goes by the name of John Clayton, his given name. Meanwhile, back in Africa, Belgium’s bloodthirsty King Leopold II has quietly enslaved the natives in the Congo which was, at the time, a Belgian colony and has loosed his nefarious right hand man Colonel Leon Rom (Waltz) to take out the only man capable of stopping his plans – Tarzan.

Colonel Rom lures Tarzan back on an expedition ostensibly to inspect Leopold’s supposedly enlightened progress in the jungle and, as representatives of the English government imply, in the meantime assisting England with trade relations with the fractious monarch. Tarzan is decidedly reluctant to go back although Jane, who also grew up on the Dark Continent, is eager to return to her home and friends. Tarzan is accompanied by the American activist George Washington Williams (Jackson) who believes that Leopold is up to something – slavery, to be specific – and wants Tarzan to help him document it.

Of course, you don’t need Admiral Akbar to tell you it’s a trap. On a visit to the peaceful village where Jane grew up and near where Tarzan was raised by a tribe of apes, Jane is kidnapped by Rom and of course Tarzan chases him through the jungle relentlessly. What Tarzan doesn’t know is that an old enemy (Hounsou) awaits him on the other side of the jungle to take his revenge on the Lord of the Apes, in exchange for a boatload of diamonds that will enable Leopold to pay for a mercenary army to wreak havoc in central Africa. Definitely not cricket, that.

Skarsgård, who made so many fans on True Blood, makes a fine Tarzan. He reminds me a little bit of Viggo Mortensen with the kind of twinkle in his eye smirk that Mortensen has, particularly when he played Aragon. Skarsgård who took the role largely to please his father who’s a big Tarzan fan (his dad is noted actor Stellan Skarsgård for those not in the know) gives the pulp hero a brooding presence, perhaps more so than any other actor who has played him (and there have been plenty of those).

The pacing here starts off a little bit slow, but does pick up by the end. Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter flicks, knows how to build a level of action in his movies and by the time the final confrontation between Tarzan and Rom takes place, the audience is well-primed for it. As for that confrontation, trust me it’s a doozy. As far as thrills go, The Legend of Tarzan delivers.

One thing that was inevitable was that the modern liberal sensibilities of film critics were rubbed the wrong way. A lot of copy has been written about colonialism, and Tarzan as the Big White Bwana and there is truth to that – but considering Tarzan was created back in 1918, one must have at least some leeway for the times not only portrayed in the film but in the source material.

Although to be fair, in this case that source material was the Dark Horse comic rather than Burroughs’ original novels, which truth be told probably wouldn’t play well these days. Curiously, real people are used here – Leopold, Rom and George Washington Williams all existed and pretty much as they are depicted in the film. Adding Tarzan to the mix is an interesting idea, but it’s a lot like having Austin Powers try to stop the Kennedy Assassination, although of course the events in the Congo back at the turn of the 20th century are a lot less well-known to American audiences than JFK.

I will say that the lush backgrounds filmed in Gabon are absolutely extraordinary, although the actors mainly filmed on stages with green screens and CGI animals. And that to a very large extent defines what’s wrong with this film. They really wanted to go with realism in the story line, but rather than going with real animals, they went the CGI route and it shows at times. In other words, the filmmakers wanted to have their cake and eat it too, but ended up with a doughy mixture with too much sugar and not enough substance.

REASONS TO GO: Skarsgård has A-list potential. The film utilizes gorgeous African vistas, although most of the jungle scenes are on sets.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much CGI spoils the broth. The mix of real and fictional is less enticing than it sounds.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of action and violence, some rude dialogue and a bit of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last film to be produced by Jerry Weintraub, who passed away shortly before shooting wrapped.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Greystoke
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Observance

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

The Celestine Prophecy


The Celestine Prophecy

Coincidentally, they've walked out to a vista of where they're supposed to go.

(RAM Entertainment) Matthew Settle, Thomas Kretschmann, Annabeth Gish, Sarah Wayne Callies, Hector Elizondo, Joaquim de Almeida, Jurgen Prochnow, John Aylward. Directed by Armand Mastroianni

Sometimes a work of literature can become a phenomenon; not because it is especially well-written but because people are searching for answers and they tend to go a little gaga when they think they’ve found a few.

John (Settle) is a high school history teacher whose services are no longer required. Adrift and somewhat at a crossroads in his life, he meets up with an old flame who conveniently flits into town (you’ll notice a lot of these conveniences in the film) to tell him about an exciting discovery in Peru of eight scrolls that have been dated 500 years before Christ, and each containing a singular insight that when taken as a whole will open a pathway to a new spiritual revelation. On something of a whim, John books passage on a flight to Peru after seeing a brochure for Peru arrive in the mail. Out flits his old flame, not to return.

In flits a historian, Dobson (Aylward) who sits alongside John on board the flight. Not only is he aware of the scrolls, he has been assisting with their translation and interpretation. It is he who dated the scrolls (although he did have them home before curfew). He also warns John that not everyone is eager to see the contents of the scrolls revealed to the world.

Before he can even say “See what I mean?” John witnesses the abduction of a priest whom he had been sent to connect with in order to see the scrolls. Strangely, it appears to be the police doing the abducting and when Dobson shows up, he gets taken too. Out flits Dobson from the movie.

John is saved by Wil (Kretschmann) who conveniently enough is one of the acolytes working on the scrolls and had arrived too late to help Father Jose or Dobson but he manages to bring John to their commune/resort/enclave/whatever. There he meets Marjorie (Callies) who at first recoils from John’s controlling energy (John has no game when it comes to the ladies) but eventually teaches him to share energy which is apparently better than sex.

However, the government forces marshaled by Cardinal Sebastian (Elizondo) and the mercenary Jensen (Prochnow) decide to take on the Celestines head-on and raid the ranch/commune/resort/enclave/center/whatever. Things look bad for the Celestines but they are rescued by the timely appearance of local rebels who could care less about them but who keep the government troops busy enough for them to get away and get on with their real business of finding the ninth scroll, which is the key and which apparently John is the key to acquiring. Ain’t that a coincidence? In ny case, out flit the rebels and in flits a headache.

Back in the 90s this was a huge bestselling novel for James Redfield. Several studio offers were made to convert the  property into a major motion picture, but Redfield turned down all of them, wanting to maintain intellectual and artistic control. Perhaps he should have taken one of them.

This is a mess from beginning to end. It’s really hard to know where to start, whether it is the new age hokum that is continually being spouted until you want to shove a bowl of granola up someone’s rectum or the wooden acting that keeps the energy of the film muted,. No, I think it was the overreliance on coincidence as a plot device and the way the characters keep commenting that these “coincidences” prove that something is meant to be. Actually, it’s just bad writing.

I tried plowing through the novel back in the day but finally gave up when I realized that for my admittedly dull sensibilities was neither entertaining nor enlightening and I feel the same way about the movie. Nothing in it really works, although if you’re a fan of the book you’ll appreciate how faithful the movie is to the novel, which is apparently what Redfield was after. He got his wish, but unfortunately what he didn’t get was a good movie and that’s no coincidence.

WHY RENT THIS: A fairly faithful adaptation of the novel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Stiff and clumsily directed which is appropriate considering the stiff and wooden acting in the movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence but not enough to make me hesitate to allow most kids to watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Redfield had initially self-published the book and sold 100,000 copies out of the back of his truck before Warner Books agreed to publish it; the book went on to become one of the best-selling novels of all time. The author decided to take a similar approach to the film and self-financed it as well as writing the screenplay himself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $903,680 on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Broken Embraces

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