Thursday, October 28, 2010

Need Another Hot Beef Injection? Thank You Expendables

As a born again heterosexual nothing gets me more excited than watching a bunch of bulked up, bulging, sweaty men, with rippling muscles engage in close quarters, MMA inspired combat after killing hundreds of less virile men with only dozens of bullets and then celebrate by smoking phallic cigars and not have sex with gorgeous, big-breasted women.  Imagine my delight, then, when I saw Stallone's latest moving picture THE EXPENDABLES.  This was Stallone's attempt to recapture/cash in on the 80's action movie archetype which he helped to create with his own RAMBO series.  It was this series of movies where Stallone actually helped define the absurd action movie cliches and stereotypes that he is now attempting to parody/satirize/emulate in what is now being billed as simultaneously both nostalgic and progressive (ie. the older generation passing the torch the slightly less older generation).  I briefly considered the philosophical ramifications before I went to see the movie but mostly I got excited for another installment of mindless gun porn (a term I recently heard and stole from a friend) and a large collection of giant muscle-bound action stars beating the shit out of each other.  Or, as Tobias Funke would say: "I can just taste those meaty, leading man parts in my mouth."

The plot of THE EXPENDABLES follows a group of ultimate badasses (except for, somewhat glaringly, Bill Paxton) who travel around the world independently contracting themselves out for covert military operations.  I suppose this makes them mercenaries, but I think the popular romantic vision of mercenaries differs from the hard reality (ie. badass motherfuckers with a conscious vs. soldiers for hire who kill who they're hired to kill regardless).  This troupe of wandering ass kicking machines is made up of a plethora of (mostly) movie action icons including Sylvester Stallone, his old arch nemesis Dolf Dundgren, Jason Statham, Jet Li, and real life UFC icon Randy Couture.  I won't list all their character names because they're not really that important.  This team is hired to overthrow a tyrannical government on a generic South American island. However, when they discover that they might be being set up by the CIA to solve a problem they themselves caused the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan and this ragtag group of mercenaries goes into hardcore ass-kicking mode and cause a lot of big explosions and kill a shit-ton of people.  All in the name of peace and freedom of course.

What was really interesting about this film was the fact that it even exists.  The idea is so absurd that it could have come from a movie itself: an aging action star from the 80's tries to make a "modern," 21st century action movie with that 80's action movie sensibility and a gathering of action stars from the past thirty years the likes of which has never been seen.  I'm not sure how much of the "80's nostalgia" was Stallone's original intent and how much came about as a result of marketing, but in the end it doesn't matter.  The fact is THE EXPENDABLES now only exists within that framework and can now only be seen through that lens.  What made the film really interesting to me was the fact that Sylvester Stallone intentionally wanted to make an action film in the same vein as all of those old eighties action films.  Stallone is in a unique position as a filmmaker in this case because he actually starred in 80's action films.  That means that this film was not just another action extravaganza, it was Stallone's analysis/commentary on the "old" action films of that era, and therefore of the era itself, but ultimately of himself.

In this respect there a few ways to approach the movie.  THE EXPENDABLES could be Stallone's way of saying "This is the way those movies should have been made."  From this point of view the movie is a critique of 80's action powerhouses including his own FIRST BLOOD.  However, FIRST BLOOD was not just mindless violence, even though it helped establish the cinematic paradigm of the invincible superhuman protagonist.  Even though it was chock full of balls to the wall action at its core it was an exploration of the alienation that Vietnam veterens felt after returning from the war.  THE EXPENDABLES didn't seem to have any coherent plot or deeper themes and was more or less an excuse for Stallone et al to rock out with their cocks (and guns (or knives)) out.  The message here is that while the old school action movies might have had more coherent plots and significant themes, it all pales in comparison to the orgy of blood and violence they can come up with now.

Another way to interpret the film would be that this is Stallone's homage to a bygone era.  To a time when men were men and if they wanted to blow shit up with a bow and arrow or wipe out entire armies with a single clip of bullets and a couple of hand grenades and they had 36-inch biceps then by God they should be allowed -nay required- to do so.  I mean the hardcore Action film with a capital A that was born in the 1980's is pretty much extinct now.  I'm not sure what happened during the 90's but by the 00's quality action movies were an endangered species like the hooker with a heart of gold or the Guns n' Roses fan who "loves" Chinese Democracy.  From this point of view THE EXPENDABLES is Stallone's personal salute to the 80's as Stallone blows his wad remembering "the good times."  This of course idealizes the old and rejects the new, which could be seen as endearing or anti-progressive.

The third possibility is that this is how Stallone remembers 80's action movies.  This possibility makes me sad. While THE EXPENDABLES was by no means terrible, it was a far cry from perfect.  Gone was the archetype of the vulnerable lone superman who took on the Legions of Evil, be they terrorists in a skyscraper on Christmas Eve, or the faceless soldiers with terrible aim from some South American country that didn't exist (and, let's face it, was supposed to be Cuba).  John MacClane got the bad guys but he got royally fucked up doing so.  Even Sly and Arnie had time to bleed sometimes.  Now it seems that if you're "the good guy" you're fucking invincible which detracts from the tension in the movie.  Gone are themes and symbolism and social commentary which -although barely detectable sometimes- still gave action movies something extra.  I already gave the example of RAMBO, but even something like TOTAL RECALL had the whole reality vs. dreamworld theme going on.  Rescuing your daughter or your wife from gun-toting psychopaths may not have been on as grand a scale thematically, but they were still very visceral that gave the the characters some (a-hem) depth or at least put their actions within a context.  I mean, I realize that the old action films were filled with more than their fair share of cheese, which is actually one of the things that made them so memorable and allowed them to transcend their genres.  THE EXPENDABLES had its fair share of cheese but those old action films were loaded with finely aged camombert, while Stallone's newest effort seems to be suffocated with processed cheese slices from individual plastic packages.

The simple fact of the matter is that this film is nowhere near as good as it could have -or should have- been.  And I'm honestly surprised at this fact.  And I think my surprise is completely justified.  In the past couple years Stallone has put out a couple quality flicks.  I mean first we had ROCKY BALBOA which I just watched a couple of nights ago with my wife (a ROCKY virgin) and which was fucking great.  I vaguely remember THE EXPENDABLES being associated with this whole idea of passing the proverbial torch to the next generation of action movies.  This concept was already explored much more effectively and directly in ROCKY BALBOA.  I know that the rocky films are not action films in the traditional (or any) sense, but the fact remains they are inexorably linked to Sly Stallone who is an action hero archetype.  In Rocky's final ride there is this tension between the old (experienced) and the new ("untested") which is of course personified in the final fight between Rocky and Mason "The Line" Dixon (still trying to come up with my own Rocky-esque nickname.  I was thinking "The Meat Grinder."  Think about it. (Hint: masturbation)).  This made any passing of flaming phallic symbols by THE EXPENDABLES redundant and far less significant. Then there was the new (aptly titled) RAMBO in which Stallone once again reprises the role of everybody's favourite angry, semi-retired war vet.  RAMBO was a fucking great movie, not only because of the insane action and over the top violence, but also because it was set within the context of the tension between simultaneously wanting to preserve peace and kick serious ass and that sometimes the ends do justify the means.  I know RAMBO was not meant to be a philosophical opus, but it was trying to say something, which put the rest of the action and violence in context.  THE EXPENDABLES seemed like it was a series of action scenes looking for an excuse to happen instead of a situation that allowed for the action to occur, which is one of the prime reasons all the other movies I've mentioned were so much better than THE EXPENDABLES.

All of this might make it seem like I hated this movie, but I actually enjoyed it quite a bit.  There were a few action scenes, but the whole movie was obviously just a pretext for the final action sequence, which, for lack of a better word, was absolutely fucking nuts.  The fight between Stallone and Steve Austin is definitely one of the highlights, as is watching Randy Couture (added for some "realism?") get to bust out his MMA moves and actually see some of them -like the arm bar- through to the end (can you say "exposed bone" anyone?).  It was also amusing watching Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren pair off at one point and watching Jason Statham fucking dudes up with his hard-hitting style.  The only problem with the movie was when there was no action. There was no back story except somewhat bafflingly Statham's character, Lee Christmas.  The thing is even this didn't really tie in to the main plot.  There wasn't even some nudity to make up for the lack of violence and plot.  It's a scientific fact that tits make every movie ten times better.

The thing that really drew me to this film, and indeed the only real thing it has going for it, is the sheer spectacle.  Big explosions and big cameos in the way of Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwartzeneger, and even the resurrected Mickey Rourke.  There's just something satisfying (a slightly homoerotic, I suppose, but that's the subject of a whole other entry) about watching a bunch of ripped muscley men make widows out of thousands of men's wives and blow a lot of shit up.  I'm also transfixed by the sheer magnitude of Stallone's impressive physique even as he edges towards his seventies.  HGH is the fucking bomb, yo.
Overall I give THE EXPENDABLES a 6.5/10 = One Mercenary Head Rippling With Muscle And Carrying A Giant Fucking Gun

Monday, October 04, 2010

Cemetery Junction Surprisingly Full of Life

When I first heard the title Cemetery Junction my mind immediately jumped to zombies brought back to life by some ancient tribal curse with a little necrophelia thrown in for good measure (I'm really surprised there isn't a lot more dead sex in all these zombie movies these days.)  When it turned out to be a coming of age dramedy written and directed by the great Ricky Gervais, I wasn't sold on the idea.  When I think "Ricky Gervais" I immediately think "fucking hilarious" and "irreverent" and "witty" not "intense drama."  But being the true talent that he is I had no need to fear that the movie would lack consistent tone and a strong heart.  What Cemetery Junction lacked in sex with fresh corpses it completely made up for with excellent writing, a strong cast, and a nostalgic look back at 1970's England. 

The story basically follows three friends in their early twenties on the precipice of change.  Growing up in a small town they have an extra chip on their shoulders to match the one they carry from their fathers.  Freddie (Christian Cooke) is looking to escape the small town curse and try to make a name and life for himself by working for an insurance company.  Bruce (Tom Hughes) is a highly intelligent young man who could make a life for himself outside of the local steel mill, but seems intent on fucking things up for himself through excessive booze, barfights, and run-ins with the local fuzz.  Brucie-boy also has some very big, very unresolved issues with his father who he blames for letting his mother get away.  Snork (Jack Doolan) is the lovable retard of the group (every group of friends has one).  He's the guy who you're not sure why he's your friend, and you pick on for being stupid or ugly, but if somebody else attacks him you'd pound the other guy into a bloody pulp to defend him.  Snork lacks that something in his brain that helps him pick up on the subtle social cues the rest of us impicitly understand and who just wants a steady job and to get laid now and again.  As Freddie starts to succeed a little at his new job he falls in love with the boss's daughter Julie (Felicity Jones) who inspires him to "throw his heart out in front of him" and start living life the way he wants to.  As Julie is already engaged to a complete asshole Freddie and his two best friends decide to leave town and start travelling in search of themselves, but nothing ever turns out like you planned, except for the cliched ending of a coming of age movie, a conceit I was more than willing to forgive (overlook?) in this case.

Fuck, my plot summaries always end up dragging on way too long.  I suppose brevity was never my strong suit.  "What," you may ask yourself, "if anything does that have to do with Cemetery Junction?"  Nothing really, but the problem with reviewing a really good movie or a really bad movie is that one tends to run out of things to say after "This movie was fucking awesome," or "This movie was complete and utter dogshit."  I am happy to report that this movie definitely falls into the "fucking awesome" category.  Right off the bat as soon as I hear the name Ricky Gervais, my immediate gut reaction is to love whatever is associated with that name.  The Office alone earns him my Lifetime Respect Award which entitles him to A) stay over at my house whenever he wants and B) me automatically purchasing any movie and/or TV series with his name attached to it (when it goes on sale, of course).

Anywho, back to the task at hand.  Cemetery Junction was a really nice surprise right in the middle of a movie-watching slump.  That is to say that after watching a whole host of shitty movies recently (with the exception of Inception of course) my faith in movies was slightly restored.  It really had the perfect mix of drama and comedy with a little dash of "guy and girl face adversity but get together in the end" thrown in for good measure.  It really spoke to me for a couple of reasons.  One, I grew up in a small town so the whole idea of feeling trapped in a life of mediocrity no matter how talented or intelligent I might be struck a chord.  There's this weird magnetic pull that I find occurs more with people from small towns where they feel compelled or drawn to whatever shithole burg they were from no matter how much they hated it.  There's a certain fatalism that develops and people get caught in this cycle of living in the same place as your father, doing the same things as your father, and working the same job as your father like it was inevitable or some shit.  Being a janitor or a gas attendent is all well and good if that is the extent of your talents, but if you are one of the priveleged few who has been given the gift of intelligence then I believe you have an intellectual responsibility to contribute to the general development of humankind and not throw your life away because it feels comfortable or safe.

The second reason I really connected with this film is that idea of being at a major crossroads in your life and feeling like you're at the end of an era and feeling more lost than Lindsey Lohan in a spelling bee.  It's what I like to call the Smith Factor, referring of course to Kevin Smith's epic movies Clerks and Clerks II where the characters are in their 20's and 30's respectively and trying to figure out what the fuck to do with their lives.  The reason I think that sentiment resonates is because like so many young men of our time I have no idea what I'm going to do either.  I think that a lot of people from my generation have that sense of listlessness due to widespread disillusionment that cultivates a deep-rooted cynicism that is afflicting people at a much younger age these days.  We don't just walk into the family business get a wife and push out a couple kids.  There's no longer such a thing as a family business to step into and the myth of automatic stability granted by the Nuclear Family has been dispelled.  There isn't that same sense of purpose that our parents and grandparents had, that was engrained into them.  We no longer "establish a career" we just "work at a job until we get laid off or something better comes along."  I think Gervais really tapped into that sense of cultural and emotional disenfranchisement when we learn that life and the classic ideal of "progress" is a load of bullshit and a great deal of time spent in that strange realm known as "real life" presents very little emotional or spiritual fulfillment.

Having the three main characters portrayed by relative unknowns (definitely Ricky Gervais' MO) was a good move that really paid off.  Christian Cooke, Tom Hughes, Jack Doolan have a great chemistry on screen together and all the nuances of their particular group dynamics are brought out masterfully.  Ralph "call me Ray" Fiennes was great as the asshole boss/disconnected dad and husband.  Matthew Goode was equally goode (nope, not a spelling mistake biatch) as his asshole underling/asshole soon-to-be-son-in-law.  Emily Watson also put in an excellent performance as the emotionally-beaten down housewife.  I've been a huge fan of Watson ever since I saw Equilibrium and The Boxer and she continues to impress.   

The thing that really makes this movie work though is that it has heart.  That and the use of the word "cunt" which the British seem to love and which I've been trying (without somewhat limited success) to increase the usage of here in North America.  Mom's been a tough sell, but I think I'm starting to break through to that cun... ningly wonderful person.  Bottom line: if you love good movies you'll like this one.  I give Cemetery Junction a 9/10 = One Youthful Head With a Perfectly Quaffed 70's Head of Hair