To Live and Die on Spring Break

Spring Breakers (2013)     ★★★★ 1/2

Written & Directed by Harmony Korine (A24)

If you were to have told me that the most compelling film of early 2013 would star Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, I would’ve asked you to stop trolling. But that, to use an overused internet term, is an accurate description of what indie filmmaker Harmony Korine has accomplished with his first “mainstream” movie, being marketed to the same audience that craves a romanticism of teenage debauchery in the blindingly stupid genre of Project X and 21 and Over, when in fact, it is an extremely dark satire of an equally tiresome pop culture, one that praises the primitive extremes we dream of throughout young adulthood. Many will be baffled, while Korine, meanwhile, cashes a substantial check for his film made with a mere $5 million.

What Spring Breakers essentially does is take the party-centric insanity viewers come to expect, turn it up to unprecedented extremes, and place it within a decisively artful piece of exploitation cinema. This is accomplished through snatching the young actresses that the filmmakers have devilishly stolen from Disney fare, manipulating them for an exploration of the overused “good girls gone bad” mantra, and instead of including them in a setting of the lighthearted escapism associated with such films, dropping them in a cinematic hell; a candy-colored funhouse of drugs, sex, alcohol, and soon enough, bullets that tear flesh and spill blood. The tone often feels reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which is in part due to the unsettling, electronica score by Cliff Martinez, while as obligation, Skrillex and Britney Spears also make key contributions.

This music carries us through the shockingly hedonistic “spring break” of four college girls, who rob a diner in order to obtain enough cash for the greatest week of their lives. They are shallow and trashy, with the slight exception of Gomez as a churchgoing babe named Faith (you may now begin to see how this film gets its kicks). In fact, they seem so desensitized to party culture that the violent, way illegal “next step” seems like no big deal; knocking off a restaurant comes naturally, almost as if they have become so accustomed to the viewing of such material as Project X that it has now taken form in their own lives. They almost seem to recognize they are in a movie, and strut their “nothing is off limits” mentality for our own sick amusement.

And then James Franco, as a rapper/drug dealer/general gangsta named Alien who enters the scene, he takes this thing to a whole ‘nother level. Franco, disappearing behind dreadlocks and quite a few tats, is hysterical in one of the most transformative performances of his career. Even as the film descends from dark comedy into unremitted action-horror, the twisted humor provided by his character rings true throughout. Shot by Benoit Debie of Irreversible and Enter the Void, Korine’s film is quite the trip; a colorful, quick-cut, sometimes handheld, noisy, slomo-driven drug that never lets you come down. That said, much of the story is told through editing, montage-style sequences driving the narrative from place to place, rather than relying on traditional story elements, dialogue, and transition scenes. The girls’ meandering dialogue is often overlaid on top of the startling imagery, lines often repeated several times, bludgeoning into our heads the repetitive nature of a cultural rut our American youth has been subjected to – a spring break that we have yet to escape. The experimental nature of the film will no doubt confuse mainstream audiences, but as crazy as it may seem, that effect on several moviegoers is necessary in order for Korine’s project to work and have long-standing impact.

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Spring Breakers is a film that finds ugliness in beautiful things, and beauty in things that are ugly; horror in comedy, and comedy in horror. By taking Barbie dolls and turning them into gun-toting minions of Satan, Harmony Korine has found a platform that is undeniable simple, yet is extraordinarily thought-provoking and fun. It’s an uncomfortable experience, but also rewarding for those willing to look past the surface of teasing hotties. It’s also damn cool. One would think that if these girls actually stopped to look around a bit more often, maybe they would find something about the world that they have been seeking in their never-ending quest for thrills; maybe, in effect, they could actually find something meaningful in themselves. Instead, Korine straps their ignorance into a roller coaster of the superficial, leaving audiences to wonder, and hopefully fear – has our culture actually gone this far?

CKEP’S VERDICT – 4.5/5

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Resurrecting the Infinite

Skyfall (2012)     ★★★★ 1/2

Directed by Sam Mendes (MGM / Columbia)

http://images.wikia.com/jamesbond/images/1/1c/Skyfall_teaser_poster_(real).jpgPrepare for the fastest two hours and twenty-three minutes of your life. Such is the awesome embrace of Skyfall, the 23rd film featuring Ian Fleming’s beloved James Bond, and one of the very best entries in a cinematic legacy of remarkable endurance. As a lifelong fan of 007, I can say with complete confidence that upon the franchise’s 50th anniversary outing, I shed a tear with Mr. Bond.

In part of the assured direction by Sam Mendes, the film is a flesh-and-blood burst of action and emotion, alluding to the great archetypes of Bond films past, while maintaining a narrative that is surprisingly unpredictable. The screenplay, a collaborative effort between series vets Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with the addition of Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan (Hugo, Gladiator), features essentially the most meaningful characterizations that have ever been in a Bond film, laced with breathtaking action sequences that serve to advance the narrative; one never gets the impression that the film simply exists to jump from one stunt to the next.

The movie is instead an examination of what makes a pop culture icon legendary, and explores the concept of returning to your roots as a necessary step for advancement. Daniel Craig, slipping into that tux for the third time, is now Bond in both body and soul, encompassing the most humane version of the character to date. And as MI6 is threatened by former operative Raoul Silva (an instantly classic performance by Javier Bardem), Bond’s relationship with M (Judi Dench) is brought under the spotlight. Backed by supporting characters played by Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Albert Finney, and Ben Whishaw as a young installation of Q (in contrast, Desmond Llewelyn was 85 in his last appearance as the much-adored character), Skyfall undoubtedly becomes a colorful template for pitch-perfect, blockbuster-caliber performances.

 

I’ll be the first to tell you that Craig will never, ever be Connery. But his performance as Bond, steadily built to satisfaction through Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, is by far the most interesting, and in Skyfall, he accomplishes what he has been striving for all along. Craig plays 007 as an actual person; one who has been hardened by events that any of Bond’s prior surrogates would have simply shrugged off with a quip. Yet he still has charm and humor, components that if nonexistent, would sink this “modern” interpretation. Craig’s Bond is a man who is continuously plagued with anger and sadness, yet is able to rise above them for dedication to his job, country, and hope for a better world. He cannot afford to be sinless, but we detect that he actually feels each sin he commits (despite his attempts to display the contrary), and cares for the people who are meaningful in his life. He makes that joke, reels in those chicks, and tops it off with a martini because these things make him feel like a real man, instead of a cold-blooded killer. Bond is forced to portray the latter image, but we, as his loyal audience, are proud to know the truth.

And God bless the genius who decided to cast Judi Dench as M back in 1995, the 77-year-old actress carrying her seventh performance as Bond’s superior with the grace of a true master. The relationship between she and Bond in this film is the most touching element of a 007 movie since the character’s romantic scenario in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, albeit much better developed. These are two people hopelessly devoted to the same cause, and despite necessary decisions they may make that impact the other’s fate (and the occasionally antagonistic interchange), this relationship goes beyond professional. M and Bond complete each other because they need one another; their respective roles are necessary for each to feel the satisfaction of saving England, again and again. And whilst sharing this love of country, how could they not be emotionally linked?

Skyfall does have its share of female characters (Naomie Harris tends to be a bit awesome), but aside from Dench, the big talk of Bond 23 will be his possibly homosexual antagonist, Bardem hoping to craft the character into a quintessential nemesis of 007. To be blunt, he succeeds. After a slew of enemies far too normal (who often have conquests far too absurd), Raoul Silva presents a scheme with exclusively personal motivation. Bardem, while not stealing scenes away from Craig, shines every moment he is onscreen, formulating a uniquely charismatic personality with distinguished quirks. All the essential components are there – the physical deformity, haunting past, sinister humor, and ultimately, a decent into insanity that provokes evil acts. Curiously enough, he also earns a tinge of our sympathy.

 

The story here isn’t anything particularly ingenious, but it functions superbly as an allegory for the series overall, and is paced with incredible expertise. A major concern of mine coming into Skyfall was something that I once thought somewhat trivial, but was actually quite distracted by in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace – product placement. It has been said that Sam Mendes’ film couldn’t have been made without the Heineken plug (MGM finally went bankrupt throughout the film’s strenuous path to the silver screen), but thankfully, its spare usage remains natural, and Bond’s iconic drink is still served, a subtle moment that will make fans grin. Other familiar brands also pop up every once in awhile, but remain a forgivable aspect of what is arguably a fantastic action film, supplemented by both Thomas Newman’s unique, tone-setting score, and the hypnotic title song by Adele.

Featuring cinematography by Roger Deakins, who has shot over ten features with the Coen brothers, Skyfall features camerawork that is staggeringly beautiful, harnessed by Mendes into a terrifically cinematic experience (although you have to wonder, did we really need so many shots of the actors from behind?). The action sequences and set pieces match the caliber we have come to expect from Bond, although they are incorporated more naturalistically here. The film actually utilizes CGI to its advantage, adding an element of comic-book adventure that saves the series from the trap of brooding, Bourne-like action. Skyfall thankfully recognizes its own episodic nature, representing James Bond as the logic-transcending figure that is James Bond, while simultaneously placing itself in an imperfect world that mirrors our own anxieties.

 

Coming with the territory is dialogue that is sometimes annoyingly frank; we know that “finding the list” is essential, M. A note to screenwriters everywhere – if she’s a good enough actress, you don’t have to make her say it! We will, as we frequently do with a performer as sensational as Dench, see the line written all over her face. It’s also slightly frustrating that it has taken the “rebooted” series three movies to finally arrive at where it wants to be – that is, containing all the original elements of the Bond films, yet in a 21st century context. There is, however, something spectacularly rewarding about things that are gradually unveiled in Skyfall, 50 years after Connery first shot a Walther PPK. If you’re a Bond fan, the film’s resolution will leave you in bliss. If you’re a newcomer, damned if you won’t notice something special going on.

Skyfall is as much a journey into the past as it is a triumphant sign of what is to come. Our society, our lives themselves, are bound by the necessity of storytelling as an element of the human experience. Personal to us are the characters that inhabit those stories, maybe because they represent pieces of ourselves. And if a character is strong enough, he or she will live forever in our hearts and minds. But while Count Dracula may be killed with a stake through the heart, it is unlikely that James Bond will ever take a fatal bullet. He is a character we have chosen to make infinite, even in a physical sense. And despite troublesome fluctuations that have occurred throughout the series over several decades, we will always bring him back. Because we need these stories, and most of all, we need the character that makes it all worth coming back for.

50 years is a long time. Let’s raise our martini glasses and toast to another.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 4.5/5

Creative Control

The Master (2012)     ★★★★★

Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (The Weinstein Company)

Imagine three of contemporary cinema’s most talented actors, and then place them at the mercy of a filmmaker who is exactly what the title would suggest. The Master is not only significant in its challenging outlook of men who domineer and those who wander, but also as an example of what happens when we allow an accomplished auteur of the craft, such as Paul Thomas Anderson, to make the exact film he feels needs to be made. It’s movies like these that simply restore your faith in modern art.

This is a narrative that bypasses the human desire to classify and categorize information, to make sense of things that sometimes cannot be understood. It doesn’t neatly tie story elements and themes into a nifty little package, instead serving to provoke inevitable discussion. Screened at select theaters in 70mm, The Master is an all-enveloping source of beauty, a devastatingly potent, hauntingly funny movie that refuses to tell you what to think or feel. The tone we experience is nearly Kubrickian in nature, if not for the style and content that is undeniably Anderson’s own.

Amidst Mihai Malaimare, Jr.’s breathtaking cinematography is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic (and mentally afflicted) World War II veteran who drunkenly stumbles upon the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a writer and philosopher (married to Amy Adams’ character) who is currently spreading word of a new religious movement, a nod to the origins of Scientology. Dodd soon finds inspiration within Quell, as the socially inept victim becomes a more integral member of “The Cause.”

Phoenix, following his self-parodying “break” from Hollywood for his rap-based mockumentary, is extraordinary. Anderson frames many scenes of dialogue by cutting between long-held close-ups of each actor, and there is not one moment when Phoenix isn’t astonishing. Between the paralyzed scowl on one side of his face, scruffy, nonsensical dialect, drunken stagger, and raw conveyance of human emotion / physicality at its most unrestrained, Joaquin is nothing less than perfect, and his character, one that will not be soon forgotten.

As for Hoffman’s performance as Dodd, partially inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, perfection also seems an easy word to throw around. The scenes he shares with Phoenix present a groundbreaking high for onscreen character interactions. This is a man who has dictated power to himself, refusing to accompany the desire of any master but himself. The foundation for his movement is even derived by the concept of past lives, things that have defined us against our current will. We rarely ask whether Dodd actually believes the things he pronounces, mostly because there are so many other questions to be asked.

Lancaster Dodd is a man with such a strong point-of-view regarding human life, that he will go so far as to broadcast radical theories in order to promote his self-believed genius. Adams, as his spouse Peggy, is also staggeringly good. Her support of her husband comes not only from love but of an undying desire to build herself up alongside him, to become immortals amongst those like Freddie, who seemed destined to roam without purpose. Dodd is a charismatic narcissist, claiming to have all the answers and blowing up when his theories are questioned, possibly because he is reminded that they have no root in logic. He comes to love Freddie because he is an ideal subject, one who he hopes can be conditioned in a manner that he seeks to enact upon all humankind. Yet there is a glimmer of hope in Anderson’s handling of the situation; we come to find that Dodd may actually appreciate the man, not just what he represents.

Peggy comes between them as a foreseer of logic in their developing relationship, displaying the image of cutesy housewife, but enacting the aggression necessary for the advancement of The Cause. It is obvious what attracts Freddie to Dodd’s cult, mainly because it involves elements of life that he has been severely lacking – community, structure, a philosophical code, etc. The scenes in which Dodd and his followers manipulate Freddie into commission are deeply saddening, effectively portrayed moments of how a man can be contorted into something he may subconsciously want, but is simply not built for. On that note, I was glad with the approach the film took of not denouncing the moral travesties of cult behavior, but instead observing one man’s experience within such a group.

Anderson matches his penetrative storytelling ability with visual splendor, swapping between every imaginable type of shot, and playing with focus and lenses like a true craftsman (you can tell that he and Malaimare always knew exactly what they wanted to do with the camera). He utilizes his iconic, sweeping camera movements in situations that are essentially ideal to the technique, such as an early scene when Quell assaults a department store customer. He holds shots long enough that we may feel like observers watching motion within a framed work of art, yet somehow being able to obtain a plentiful chunk of wisdom within each instance. There are also the previously mentioned close-ups, in which we are able to see just how talented these actors are, and how deserving they are of individual Oscars.

The Master is arguably a slow-paced film, but its narrative flow, the seamless transitions between both cinematic technique and narrative elements (there are a couple of scenes that can be interpreted as fantasy sequences, or moments displaced from time) is never less than mesmerizing. Give credit to editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty, and obviously, Anderson’s script for containing such juicy material in the first place. Anderson knew that he didn’t want to exploit his ideas, but rather provoke the audience to make its own decisions. This choice is exponentially effective, and yes, the dark humor and elaborate symbolism actually do work. Also superb is the score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who collaborated with Anderson on There Will Be Blood. The tone it conveys is beyond words, and the film itself, having incorporated each of these elements, feels like a hypnotic journey into the human soul.

There is a scene (possibly the film’s best) soon after Freddie meets Dodd, where Hoffman’s character drills the emotionally torn veteran with psychological questions; a “Processing” exercise intended to relieve Freddie of traumatic events, emotions, and memories that have occurred in his present life, and in succession, will allow him to discover the “self” that is present across all existence. At least that’s the way I interpret it, and despite Freddie’s answering of Dodd’s questions in the best way he can, it becomes clear that he may never reach that point of self-knowledge. The film comes to a conclusion that many will denounce as unfulfilling, and leaves many questions unanswered. But hey, that’s life, and it seems to be what Anderson’s been going for all along.

Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and his seemingly forgotten debut, Hard Eight, have all received their share of praise, and it should come as no surprise that the 42-year-old is considered by many critics as the greatest American director working today. Although it will baffle its share of viewers (abiding by one of many intended aspects), The Master excites me for many reasons. In particular, new generations of filmgoers will see this movie, and as long as we have wonderful artists like Anderson in the early 21st century, new blood will obtain their share of influence.

At one point in The Master, Dodd relays onto Freddie a bit of wisdom that may actually make sense, and in reality, couldn’t be more true. He tells Freddie, “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” Before Freddie went out to sea, love was his master, having hoped to spend the rest of his life with the girl who swept him off his feet. Then it was his country. And now, in a post-war world of utter confusion, it is Dodd. And throughout each transfer, sex, violence, and booze have been along for the ride. What will be the next master, or is Freddie a man who is simply fated to wander from one to the other?

Dodd hopes to place Freddie’s life within his own hands, as he does with all those he teaches. But he also wants to dictate them, shape them, mold them in his own image. To be a god. And what could be more hypocritical than that? As Dodd’s quote exemplifies, no man is free from this basic principle. The most impactful master in Dodd’s life is the drive associated with becoming his own. Obsession, inquisition, the desire to know, to win. Not all men are treated by life equally, but if we stop to look at factors that come to define who we are, leader or not, we begin to discover shared facts of humanity. The Cause is an extended metaphor, and the film of Paul Thomas Anderson, an exquisite reflection on what it means to be adrift in this strange world. It’s a remarkable piece of cinema, one that requires an audience-filmmaker relationship of enduring strength. Give yourself to The Master, and it will give itself to you.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 5/5

Lost in Time

Looper (2012)     ★★★★ 1/2

Written & Directed by Rian Johnson (FilmDistrict)

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/0a/Looper_poster.jpgAll things considered, please allow me to keep my review of Looper rather concise. Writer/director Rian Johnson’s third film is not only terrific sci-fi, but as of yet, my favorite film of the year behind Beasts of the Southern Wild. Especially for the first hour, Johnson’s screenplay is so packed with narrative tricks and stylistic boldness, it simply takes one’s breath away. Backed by impressive set design, the intricacies of his self-created world implement heady plot elements, pulpy action, dark humor, a touch of romance, impressive cinematography, sheer ingenuity, and inspiration from other great works of science-fiction.

Although the film continues to lose steam as it reaches its not-too-shocking (yet still satisfactory) conclusion, Looper is a crafty picture that thrills simply on the sensibilities of its killer style, charming those who love movies through a blessed exercise in creativity. And as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt enact the principle characters with warmth and conviction, Johnson’s film becomes a thought-provoking allegory for humanity being caught in one giant loop, making the same mistakes again, again, and again. Additionally, the filmmaker’s interpretation of time travel (which manages to be both direct and subjective) provides the chance to make a momentous “correction” within the narrative. To a less ludicrous extent, our own present also offers plenty of these opportunities; those to benefit our current time, and most importantly, build toward a future where empathy is a feasible alternative to self-actualization.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 4.5/5

Bourne Retains an Identity

The Bourne Legacy (2012)     ★★★ 1/2

Directed by Tony Gilroy (Universal Pictures)

Walking in, my most disconcerting thought regarding The Bourne Legacy was that another may follow, considering that even this first expansion of the original trilogy (which wrapped itself up rather nicely in 2007) seemingly had nowhere to go. Universal therefore made a grand decision in hiring the co-writer of the first three films, Tony Gilroy, to direct. Featuring a screenplay written by Gilroy and his brother, Dan, in addition to editing by his second brother, John, The Bourne Legacy truly is a family affair, helmed by a man who knows how to build upon a franchise he had a tremendous stake in … and still does.

Alas, we have no Matt Damon, but Jeremy Renner, as newly introduced protagonist Aaron Cross, gives a commanding performance. And as opposed to Damon’s vulnerable intensity, Renner is successful in delivering a character that is compelling for different reasons. Meanwhile, Gilroy’s direction provides the perfect balance between the stylization of Doug Liman’s original (which in my opinion, remains the weakest film of the four), and the superior, more naturalistically violent sequels by Paul Greengrass. In Legacy, the quick-cut action sequences are surprisingly well-edited, delivering rapid moments of intensity that contrast with a film of much slower pace than its predecessors.

The screenplay, while blending much of the narrative with the events of The Bourne Ultimatum, is clever to the extent that it is consistently thrilling, despite containing relatively thin plotting (which becomes clear in a rather flimsy third act). Many would say that Damon was the heart of the series, and they would probably be right. But there is enough interesting material here to believe that if Gilroy continues to expand this universe (while still retaining the presence of both Jason Bourne and the impact of his character, which is done phenomenally here), there may still be life in what started as a bizarre case of amnesia.

As Cross, Renner plays a black ops agent in a program similar to the one that bred Bourne, and that which faces exposure after the impactful events of Ultimatum. Only him and Dr. Martha Shearing (Rachel Weisz) remain after a CIA attempt to destroy all human evidence, an escapade led by operations head Eric Beyer (Edward Norton). Renner may lack Damon’s questioning gaze, but he feels completely right for this new role; a man who must acquire the ferocity of a lone wolf, while retaining the humanity that his superiors abandon.

Thankfully, Cross and Weisz’s character aren’t cheapened by becoming immediate lovers, but they do share an interest in one another that goes beyond their mutual desire to stay alive. They have both become casualities of the government cleaning up its messes, and despite whether or not they are attracted to each other, their mutual hope fuels them in a quest to escape bureaucratic evil. Both performances are sharp, but the real scene-stealer is Norton, whose character is simply required to forgo making moral decisions.

This theme of the Bourne films continues here, and is executed just as well. The government creates victims in its attempt to provide elaborate national security, but fails to cover its tracks when one of those victims (with semi-superhuman abilities) fights back. Jason Bourne had identity issues; plus they just wouldn’t leave the poor guy alone. Aaron Cross just wants to break from the absurdity. Therefore, there’s no hero / villain relationship between himself and Ed Norton, there’s simply two men doing what they believe must be done. The one scene they share together is fantastic, and despite not having any other confrontation, their conflicting interests remain as strong in the script as the spirit of Jason Bourne.

Legacy‘s got legs to stand on, mostly because Gilroy found the right frame of reference in which to build a sequel. But if he hopes to expand the series even further, things are gonna have to get inventive. His film has few twists to speak of, and along with Damon, the densly-plotted intrigue of the prior two films is sorely missing. In fact, not enough really happens in The Bourne Legacy, but as an action film, it has enough layers of subtext to be as dramatically consistent as it is thrilling in several action sequences and moments of suspense.

Many opening scenes are set in Alaska, and feature story material (and a touch of symbolism) that is far different from anything else we have seen in the Bourne franchise. In contradiction, the film tends to show weakness in its retread of situations and dialogue that seem to nearly parody dramatic intricacies of the series. A rather implausible plot development involving a super-assassin is one such example; an unexplored complication lending itself to an abrupt resolution. At least Moby’s “Extreme Ways” plays in the end credits, once again. But of course, a little extra juice is slapped on the now-classic tune. I then return to my initial thought, and wonder what lies beyond Legacy. What I’m looking for is the next track, but in the meantime, who doesn’t enjoy a good remix?

CKEP’S VERDICT – 3.5/5

They’re Baaach!!!

The Expendables 2 (August 17, 2012)     ★★ 1/2

Directed by Simon West (Lionsgate)

Double the guns! Double the laughs! Double the sighs! The Expendables 2 is here, and for those who care to remember, it’s already been two years since Stallone, Statham, Li, Lundgren, Willis, Crews, and Couture teamed up for the ultimate action flick. Unfortunately, it resembled little more than a direct-to-video entry in any one of these star’s expansive catalogues of ass-kicking. This sequel, while suffering from many of the same downfalls of its predecessor, benefits from the absence of star/co-writer/creator Sylvester Stallone’s direction, which along with Jeffrey Kimball’s cinematography, formulated an ugly barrage of close-ups and shaky-cam antics. In contrast, The Expendables 2 happens to be directed by Con Air‘s Simon West, and shot by Shelly Johnson (Captain America: The First Avenger), which at least supplies some stability to the film’s relentlessly chaotic style, and in effect, will satisfy those who anticipated the first to be crowned king of its genre.

Jean-Claude Van Damme plays the villain this time around, and we are assured so by the character’s last name of ‘Vilain.’ Like the first, the film lacks much of any ambition in the plot department, basically involving Stallone and his team in a quest to obtain precious cargo from a fallen aircraft. Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger, in what are two roles worthy of admission itself (despite their completely illogical placement within the narrative), both look terrific, state their absurd dialogue with excellent timing, and manage to earn applause with their campy, gun-toting return to the big screen. Van Damme is also a surprisingly fun villain, and luckily, had the smarts to demand an extended fight scene between himself and Stallone in the film’s climax, which remains the shining moment in West’s semi-oiled machine.

Meanwhile, Chinese actress Yu Nan plays the newest addition to Stallone’s team, and as if her acting weren’t lackluster enough, the film seems to indicate that her presence alone only adds depth to mediocre storytelling (She’s a woman … GASP! It’s not like this is the 21st century or anything, and we’ve been shown a million times that women actually CAN kick an obscene amount of ass). Liam Hemsworth, playing a young sniper who is also a new addition to the crew, is a catalyst for much of the narrative development in the film, and yes, it plays out just as generically as you may anticipate. But he is also rather satisfactory in the role, and handles a silly monologue (the script was written by Stallone and Richard Wenk) with convincing, emotional stature. He’s no Mickey Rourke, but hey, the guy’s getting married to Miley Cyrus. I guess he needed at least one thing to be proud of.

As for the action itself, these movies could really benefit from some slow-mo, John Woo-style theatrics. Even if Johnson’s cinematography gets the job done, the color scheme is often dull and murky, the frame containing grain and shadowy attempts to play with light. The editing, by Todd E. Miller, is nearly as poor as that in the first film, quickly cutting action scenes to the point of frustration. They are, however, slightly more coherent than the 2010 sequences, and the effects / practical sequences actually blend in a way that makes us appreciate these fellas doing their own stunts, rather than be overwhelmed by digital blood and explosions (although the CGI still looks utterly unconvincing).

The ultra-violence does feel considerably more cohesive and intense in this second entry, but still fails to live up to its potential. For a film that could have such a large scope, The Expendables 2 limits itself by continuing the original’s usage of Bourne-style schizophrenia, rather than staging elaborate sequences that could colorfully transport us into breathable frames of carnage. Instead, most of the enjoyment comes from simply seeing these guys all onscreen at once, shelling out one-liners like it’s a competition. Their frequent use of self-parody does make the film consistently amusing, but can’t make up for dialogue that is laughably second-rate, and plot elements that resemble a deflated balloon.

I always thought it was a grand idea for Stallone to cast himself and Jason Statham as the two bromantic leaders of their mercenary crew, because if there is one thing worth appreciating about The Expendables films, it’s the sense of communal involvement amongst a group of guys who simply love what they do, and who may not always get the chance to enact their profession. Stallone’s films give these 65-year-old stars of yesteryear that chance, and his chemistry with Statham (a mere rookie compared with the rest of these veterans) exemplifies how lucky he feels, and how eager he is to share his colleagues’ blood-soaked abilities with a new generation. These movies have their audience, and it’s hard to believe fans will be disappointed. There is fun to be had with The Expendables 2, but let’s hope their next entry isn’t so … disposable.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 2.5/5

(Somewhat Guilty) Pleasures of Summer

Magic Mike (2012)     ★★★★

Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Warner Bros. Pictures)

*CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS*

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/6/65/Magic_Mike.jpg/215px-Magic_Mike.jpgWhen women flock to see a film about a male stripper, you would instantaneously form the conception of a subpar romantic-comedy, that starring a popular male actor (with grad-A pecs) who ditches the swinger life for true love. While this is partially the premise for Magic Mike, it would be wise to ditch those notions of mediocrity. Steven Soderbergh’s stylistic confidence is the framework for a show that is surprisingly enthralling, only failing to reach the mark when the script (written by Reid Carolin) exhausts its narrative ambition. Regardless, it’s also one of the year’s best comedy-dramas, and will continue to lure in audiences who aren’t simply looking for a shot of Channing Tatum’s naked rear.

Based upon Tatum’s experience as a Tampa stripper at age 19, the performance of this 32-year-old heartthrob is simply terrific. After proving his knack for comedy in this year’s hilarious 21 Jump Street, Tatum deftly blends his charisma with dramatic composure, instantly transforming Mike into a memorable character and frontman for the film’s conveyance of a quite compelling, albeit predictable, method of storytelling. The kid he begins to train, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), is also very well-played; moody and impulsive, good-looking and hungry for vice. But as the narrative runs its course, he becomes more and more unlikable. Although this is surely the intent of the filmmakers, they fail to surpass convention in the relationship between Mike, Adam, and their differing views of life throughout the movie’s third act, which falls rather flat.

But for the most part, Magic Mike also fulfills the cliché of being balls-out fun, featuring accomplished talent behind and in front of the camera. Matthew McConaughey, after graduating from indie roles into full-fledged, Hollywood movie-stardom, has returned to his roots over the past few years, generating much buzz for his performances in the likes of The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Killer Joe, and Soderbergh’s film. Here, he plays Dallas, the lead stripper and entrepreneurial force behind Tampa’s finest gentlemen, giving a hilarious performance, and enacting a compelling symbol of the negligent, greedy world that Mike wants to escape before it’s too late, in addition to the one that quickly grabs Adam by the privates. The other fellas, including Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello, are also terrifically played.

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In fact, the only flaw in the film’s casting is Cody Horn as Alex’s sister / Mike’s love interest, who appears almost distractingly amateurish. Never once is she believable as the character, appearing to read lines rather than play a part. Although one bum performance shouldn’t be much of a problem, the ridiculous talent on display in Magic Mike makes her presence seem even weaker. Horn states dialogue with exactly the same vocal inflection and body language, with the exception of one panicky scene she plays rather well. The result drains dramatic weight from several key moments, especially when Tatum gives his inevitable “I’m not JUST a stripper! I’m a man with ambition and stuff!” speech.

Eventually, Carolin’s script takes an easy route to self-resolution, but it’s easy to see what the film is going for. Soderbergh, who may soon retire from directing, composes long takes with such interestingly composed foreground and background; artistry that would arouse movie nerds just as much as Tatum’s chest for nearly anyone with estrogen. As for the dance sequences (and this is coming from a heterosexual man), they are simply superb. Not only are they over-the-top funny, but Soderbergh actually allows each frame to breathe; he doesn’t follow the music video mentality of quick-cut nonsense, that methodology almost always resulting in visual incoherence.

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By cutting sparingly, and allowing the audience to view each shot for an extended period of time, we are able to see how truly talented each of these actors are. They not only look damn ripped, but can rock a dance routine like an urban Gene Kelly. And because Soderbergh choreographs these scenes without swapping to a different angle every half-second, we are actually able to enjoy them in real time and space. We become an audience member at the Xquisite Strip Club, and as a result, are considerably more involved in Mike’s story.

Unfortunately, despite this excellent cinematography and editing (for the latter, consider a dual sex-scene/montage where Soderbergh uses a different color filter for each plane of action), Magic Mike never capitalizes on its own greatness. Soderbergh keeps a light-hearted tone throughout most of the film (think of the Ocean’s movies), even as it descends into the darker territories of the stripper scene. For the most part, this is a pretty cool decision; it keeps the film from entering predictable, morality-tale area. But as the movie keeps trying to explain that Mike is a three-dimensional person, it never fulfills the promise of giving him more than one decision to make.

Mike wants to be a custom-furniture maker, but he may never get that chance, whether or not he ditches the dollar-bill-spewing nightlife. But how would he cope with life without making cash, or fulfilling his dream? How would he deal with complete ambivalence to any aspiration he has? We’ll never really know, and in that regard, Magic Mike is slightly underwhelming. But what the film does show us – three months in the life of a stripper questioning his existence, and another who finds women, drugs, and ripping off clothes as a reason for existing, this is a highly functional movie. It’s witty, outrageous, bizarre, artistically sound, thought-provoking, and compulsively entertaining. But let’s revisit that third word, bizarre, and place it in its proper context.

I believe Steven Soderbergh is one of the most talented directors of the past couple decades, and one reason why his films are as compelling as they appear is not only because of his terrific camerawork, but also his knack for taking seemingly overused concepts and twisting them in a slightly unfamiliar way. I was conversing with a friend the other day, saying something in the ballpark of, “Soderbergh is a great director, but he never gives me exactly what I want.” The friend responded, “Maybe he doesn’t want to.”

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Rumor on the street is Soderbergh wants to explore painting after he finishes his last few films. Maybe he would do a portrait of Channing Tatum. I can see it now – the beefy actor standing in a room, pondering the brushstrokes, as the bald-headed, thick-rimmed artist sits on a nearby couch, eagerly awaiting his reaction with folded hands. Tatum may sarcastically comment, “Well, it looks great, Steve, but I’d love to see a little more shading on the biceps.” They’d both laugh. Soderbergh may then reply, “C’mon Channing, you know we both had our chance to look good.”

Mike sure does look good, but he may never find exactly what he wants. Because as Magic Mike would like us to believe, “exactly what you want” is difficult to obtain, especially when everyone criticizes us for not enough bicep shading. But the film is still charming and hopeful, even mildly carefree in its execution, maybe because Mike, an arguable surrogate for both Tatum and Soderbergh, has now descended into something that makes desire seem puny in comparison – the bliss of freedom, the embrace of the unknown. It allowed Tatum to become an actor, and if Soderbergh hopes to match his cinematic skills to those on a canvas, he’ll follow his star’s example, and continue to paint the biceps any which way. Because in this day and age, having them simply isn’t good enough. Or maybe it is. I guess it all depends on what you want.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 4/5

 

 

GENRE FLICK DOUBLE FEATURE

PIRANHA 3DD IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FOR RENTAL AT YOUR LOCAL REDBOX. MEANWHILE, THE RAID CAN NOW BE RENTED OR PURCHASED VIA ITUNES. BOTH FILMS HAVE OFFICIAL, UPCOMING BLU-RAY / DVD RELEASE DATES.

 

Piranha 3DD (2012)     ★★

Directed by John Gulager (Dimension Films)

https://i0.wp.com/www.attackfromplanetb.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/NewPiranha3DD3.jpgDespite the D’s being doubled, this sequel to the 2010 horror/comedy remake isn’t nearly as fun, hinging only on sporadically hilarious moments of over-the-top, sexual gore, complemented by the walking, talking self-parody known as David Hasselhoff. It’s over before you know it, and the arrangement of scenes is barely enough to provide a cohesive narrative. So depending on your tolerance for this vein of “D-movie” (I’m introducing you to the film’s level of humor), this might be one to catch with your less-sober buddies.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 2/5

BD / DVD RELEASE – September 4th

 

The Raid: Redemption (2012)     ★★★ 1/2

Written & Directed by Gareth Evans (Sony Pictures Classics)

http://drkronner.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/4f762d1a1d518-image.jpg?w=590Meanwhile, action fans could do no better than The Raid: Redemption, an Indonesian extravaganza that features astonishingly breathtaking sequences of gunplay and martial arts, all taking place within a crime-ridden apartment complex that the law has been sent to bring down. The violence is relentlessly exciting and intense, faring far better than writer/director Gareth Evans’ storytelling. But that’s understandably secondary to the tightly shot and edited thrills that come one after the other, solidifying The Raid as this year’s best action film.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 3.5/5

BD / DVD RELEASE – August 14th