Thursday, September 13, 2012

It Came From The Cineplex: The Expendables 2, Hit & Run, The Possession

If the cineplexes (cineplexi?) are any indication, Summer is definitely over. All the major tentpole event pictures of the season have come and gone, leaving us with theaters full of lukewarm leftovers. Might as well get used to it-- it's gonna be like this until the Xmas movie season.

SPOILERS, as always.

The Expendables 2
Sylvester Stallone's gang of geriatric action heroes returns in a film that's much better than the previous outing.

I was a bit disappointed with the first The Expendables, mostly due to the cast. The plan was to populate the movie with every major action star from the 1980s, putting them all together on screen for the first time. Unfortunately it didn't quite pan out and there were some glaring absences, forcing Stallone to fill spots with wresters and other "stars" I'd never heard of. Also disappointing were the blink and you'll miss them cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger (I get why Arnold's part was so small back then, but Bruce Willis had no such excuse). 

Fortunately those problems have been largely fixed this time around. I enjoyed The Expendables 2 much, much more that the original. Stallone co-wrote the script but didn't direct this time-- maybe that helped the end result? Sorry, Sly. Don't punch me. 

The plot: A bunch of old (kind of) good guys seek revenge on a middle aged bad guy for killing a really young good guy who was a member of their team. The bad guy has a doomsday weapon too. Oh, and there's a hot girl this time. That's pretty much all you need to know.

• You wouldn't know it from looking at him, but Dolph Lundgren has a master's degree in chemical engineering and a reported I.Q. of 160. These traits were incorporated into his Gunner Jensen character.

• Arnold saves the gang by digging through the wall of a mine with some kind of giant digging machine. The contraption bears a striking resemblance to the ones used on Mars in Total Recall (the good one, not the horrible remake).

• Chuck Norris' character is named Booker, an homage to the character John T. Booker he played in Good Guys Wear Black. The cobra joke he quips is from the Chuck Norris Facts internet site. 

Supposedly Norris only agreed to participate if the film was rated PG-13 (on moral grounds, I guess?) and was dissatisfied when it ultimately received an R rating. He says he won't be back for any future sequels.

• Jean-Claude Van Damme's character, the villain of the piece, is named Vilain. Really, Sly? Was that like a placeholder name in the script and you just forgot to do a search and replace before filming?

• I really enjoyed the expanded roles of Bruce Willis and Arnold this time. Seeing Bruce, Arnold and Sly again at the same time brought a big goofy smile to my jaded face.

• The overall tone seemed much more fun this time than the grim and serious first installment.

• They went a little overboard with the catch phrases though, especially near the end. I know the audience isn't going to be happy unless they hear Arnold say, "I'll be back!" and that's fine. But virtually every line he uttered was a catch phrase. As Cicero said, "Let moderation be your guide."

Pros:
• A big improvement over the original.

• Big, dumb goofy fun. In a good way.

• The additions to the cast were a welcome improvement.

Cons:
• Sly's speech about the good dying young and the bad living on (or whatever he said) was ear-rapingly awful.

• They needed to tone down the catch phrases a notch or twelve. 

Much better than the first, and a lot more fun. I give it a B+.

Hit And Run
Dax Shepard co-directs a home movie.

The plot: A small-time criminal in the Witness Protection Program risks driving his girlfriend to L.A. (the scene of his crime) for a job interview. Hijinx ensue.

• It's an OK movie, but the tone is all over the place. Is it a romantic comedy? A cross-country chase movie? Action film? All of the above?

• Dax Shepard and co-star Kristen Bell have a nice on-screen chemistry, no doubt helped by the fact that they're a real life couple.

• Most of the stars in the movie are personal friends of Shepard.

• Most of the cars driven by Shepard during the film are from his personal collection. 

Pros:
• Nice chemistry between the two leads.

• Good supporting cast. Somehow Tom Arnold managed to be somewhat likable here.

Cons:
• For a movie with a poster like this one, there's not a whole lot of hitting and running. I expected a little more in the car chase department.

• Needed to pick a tone and run with it.

Not enough funny to be a comedy, and not enough chases to be an action movie, Hit And Run is a strange little film in a class by itself. It has its moments though, and earns extra points due to the charm of its two leads. I give it a C+.


The Possession
It's been said that the Devil's greatest weapon is making people think he doesn't exist. If only that were true in the world of cinema.

The Exorcist premiered way back in 1973 and movie audiences have been suffering for it ever since. The list of possession movie clones must number in the thousands by now. Every few months it seems like another one pops up, diluting the genre even further.

I had high hopes for this movie though as it was produced by Sam Raimi, who wrote and directed the excellent Drag Me To Hell in 2009. Alas, my hopes were dashed as it's nowhere near the quality of that film and yet another in a long line of nearly interchangeable possession movies.

The plot: The usual. A demon sets up house inside a little girl from a broken home (why is it always a little girl? Don't boys ever get possessed?). Her family is skeptical at first, but eventually have to accept the fact that their precious snowflake is possessed and seek help to send the demon packing.

• They did inject a tiny bit of originality in the plot-- this time around it's a Jewish demon, a dybbuk, causing all the trouble. Oy gevalt!

• Like many movies in this genre, we're presented with a caption informing us that this movie is based on a true story. I absolutely believe that. I have no problem believing it's true that the movie is based on a story.

Here's your "true story" behind the film: A museum curator bought a Jewish wine cabinet (wow, I had no idea wine cabinets were so religious) off of eBay. According to the unusually florid product description, the wine cabinet was haunted by a dybbuk. Shortly after the curator bought the cabinet, strange things began happening to him and those around him. Apparently that was all that was needed to make the "true story" claim.

• For an object that's supposed to contain a destructive supernatural force, the dybbuk box seemed awfully easy to open. Clyde, the hero of the piece, examines it and determines it can't be opened. Em, his daughter, gets it open after about ten seconds of fiddling with it.

• After Em opens the box, she finds an odd assortment of little objects inside, including what appears to be a desiccated baby bird. Later on we find out that in order to trap the dybbuk inside the box, one has to place something of personal importance inside. Apparently the previous owner's most prized possession was... a dead bird.

• Clyde's ex-wife Stephanie makes a big deal out of telling him that she's still getting his emails on her computer and would he please do something about it. I am having a hard time trying to figure out how this could happen. They're divorced, so it's unlikely they have a joint email account. Clyde no doubt has his own account and there's no way his emails could just pop up unwanted on someone else's computer. The only way this could possibly work is if Clyde logged into his email on her computer and forgot to log out, which seems unlikely. There are about a hundred ways why this scenario just can't occur.

Of course the real reason for this whole little incident is plot trickery. By giving Clyde an excuse to get on Stephanie's computer, the two of them can gather around it and watch a video of themselves in happier times, causing them to realize they still have feelings for one another.

This kind of computer tomfoolery might have flown back in 1995 when no one had ever heard of email, but now it's just laughable.

• Clyde travels to the Hasidic section of New York to seek help for his daughter. There he encounters a young Jewish rabbi (or perhaps rabbinical student, I can't remember) named Tzadok, who says he will help him. Tzadok is played by Matisyahu, a Jewish reggae / rap star (!) with several albums under his yarmulke. I am both puzzled and pleased to find out that there are Jewish reggae / rap stars in the world.

• Stephanie has a new boyfriend named Brett, who happens to be a dentist. Apparently the possessed Em doesn't care for Brett and has a wicked sense of irony because she causes his teeth to rot out of his head. Brett then disappears from the movie. 

It's not made clear (to me at least) what happened to him. Did Em kill him? Or was Brett so ashamed at being a toothless dentist that he took off running and never stopped? If he did die, Stephanie sure gets over it in record time. She's back with Clyde by the end of the film and poor old Brett is never mentioned again. Apparently neither the authorities nor Brett's family were very concerned about his possible death either.

• Tzadok examines the dybbuk box and notes the presence of a mirror on the inside of the lid. He says that this mirror is there so that the dybbuck will see its reflection and turn away in horror, thereby helping to keep it trapped inside the box. He also says that in order to return the dybbuk to the box it is necessary to know its true name. He breaks the mirror on the lid and the dybbuk's name just happens to be carved behind it.

Later when the dybbuk is finally returned to the box, there's no indication that the mirror was replaced. Does that mean it'll be easier for it to get out? Or did Tzadok replace it while we weren't looking?

• In a similar vein, when Em first opens the box one of the trinkets she finds inside is a ring, which she immediately begins wearing. Later after the dybbuk is once more trapped inside the box, we see that the ring remains outside. Does it not matter if the ring is returned to the box? Do the previous trinkets become null and void once the dybbuk escapes? Am I putting more thought into this movie than the writers did?

• As is required by law in any movie about demonic possession, the studio insists there were several unusual and sinister events that occurred during filming, such as exploding lights and props that caught fire. Insert prolonged eye roll here.

Pros:
• The Jewish background brings a much needed breath of fresh air to this tired genre. Unfortunately they didn't include enough of it, in my opinion.

• Decent performances by the cast.

• Despite my ragging on the film, there were a couple of genuinely scary parts.

Cons:
• Vague direction which leaves you questioning what the hell happened.

• A genre that needs a nice long rest.

Yet another in an endless string of Exorcist clones, this one earns one small point for originality for making the demon Jewish. I give it a C-.

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