“The Expendables” review

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Sylvester Stallone directs a huge cast of action stars in his newest film “The Expendables”, including the likes of Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Steve Austin, Eric Roberts, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Stallone himself, and in brief cameos, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. The concept of this film is that it pays tribute to 1980’s action movies, in that it puts emphasis on masculinity, muscles and explosions, as opposed to modern emphasis on computer-generated effects. They play a group of mercenaries nicknamed “the Expendables”, who are hired by the CIA to travel to a South American island and fight off a (naturally, evil) dictatorship that’s presiding over the island.

Now first, let me say before all else that I am a large fan of 1980’s action movies, and admire the tone that the film attempts to set, “The Expendables” is by and large a failure at everything it attempts to do. In terms of being a coherent story we care about, the film fails, although to be fair the film doesn’t really hinge on such a thing. The film’s point is to get several large stars together, and string together several huge action set pieces centered around these stars.

Firstly, the action is really kind of terrible. Most of the sequences are rendered almost incomprehensible by the shaky camerawork, and when I could actually make out what’s happening, I was disappointed by just how uninspired the sequences were. I mean seriously, a film that doesn’t satisfy on even such an elementary level deserves to be labeled as a failure.

There literally could have been an entirely different cast, and the film probably would have played out the same way, that’s how little everyone brings to their roles. Everyone acts as a caricature of themselves. Even the great Mickey Rourke is reduced to a thankless role as a tattoo artist.

Take for example, the scene with Stallone, and in cameo appearances, Bruce Willis and Ah-nuld Schwarzenegger himself. This scene, which has been hyped for months as the symbolic converging of action cinema demigods, is little more than the three stars standing in a circle, swearing incessantly, and the scene abruptly ending.

I suppose this scene is a fantastic representation of what “The Expendables” is: Awesome in concept, but when it comes to the execution, meandering, dull, and most unforgivably of all: Underwhelming.

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“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” review.

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There are very few films that can come even relatively close to defining an entire sub-culture. Enter “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”, a whirling, lightning-cut epic made about and ultimately for, the geek generation.

Michael Cera (still as gleefully meek as ever) plays Scott Pilgrim, a 22-year old bass guitarist stuck at something of a crossroads in his life. He finds interest in very little, aside from his music and hanging out with his roommate Wallace. But then, the pink-haired, elusive, mysterious Ramona Flowers enters his life.

Scott is instantly smitten by her, and after some (very) awkward courting the two begin to date. But before the two can truly settle down and focus on their relationship, Scott must literally defeat in mortal combat, Ramona’s seven evil exes.

The entire film plays out and is designed to look like a blend between comic books and ’80s-era video-games. There are literally thousands of visual and audible gags, which can be as random as a faux-television audience that laughs and giggles in some parts, to exil exes disappearing and turning into coins when Scott defeats him, a la “Super Mario”. But the thing is, the countless gimmicks, references, fights, etc., never get tiring because they do not feel tacked on, they flow naturally. They are as natural an element to this film as say, dialogue or pace. This movie bounces about with a giddy exuberance that is nothing short of amazing to watch. I am not exaggerating in saying that neither I nor you have ever quite seen anything like this.

Although a good deal of the cast intentionally play it over-the-top (more on that later), the performances are never-the-less great. Cera doesn’t really deviate from his standard awkward, offbeat persona here, but to make up for it showcases both his killer comic timing and a previously unknown anecdote: This dude can seriously kick some butt as an action hero. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona does not have the meatiest of roles. That said, she demonstrates that she has serious potential as a comedic and actually, dramatic actress.

This has a remarkably strong supporting cast. Anna Kendrick (just coming off of her great turn in “Up in the Air”) shows up as Pilgrim’s younger sister, and does what she has developed a knack for doing: Knock it out of the park. The actors portraying Ramona’s “Seven Exil Exes” that are an absolute blast to watch. Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman in particular have fantastic comic timing. But Ellen Wong as Scott’s obsessed teenage ex, Knives Chau, delivers an absolute breakout performance, as a girl who absolutely refuses to give up her beloved “Scotty”. It’s pretty astonishing what a great cast has been assembled.

But the thing that really, truly and entirely blows my mind about “Scott Pilgrim” is this: Its ability to maintain a ridiculously manic pace, with sight gags and action sequences flying by in seconds, and yet touch me deeply on an emotional level. There’s something to be said for a movie where one moment a character is pulling an “Power of Self-Respect” energy sword of his chest, and the next I literally am touched so deeply I have tears in my eyes, all without feeling forced or contrived. The emotional arcs of both Scott and Ramona remain genuinely poignant, transcending the films own tone to become a great love story in its own right.

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is a giddy, gleeful ode to youth, to love, and to the fixations of geek culture. Few movies have ever stirred up such a profound emotional reaction in me as this has. Many, many people will likely disagree with this review, likely as the result of a generational gap, and that’s entirely fine by me. Why? Because similar to the way that nowadays kids watch “Star Wars” or “Back to the Future” and marvel; in 20 years kids will look at “Scott Pilgrim” and marvel. Young or old, I know I always will.

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“The Kids Are All Right” review

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Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, and Julianne Moore head an ensemble cast in the family dramedy “The Kids Are All Right”. This film was a huge success at Sundance Film Festival, and has been getting a ton of critical praise now that it’s in nationwide release. Having seen it, “Kids” is simply put, a treat to watch.

Moore and Bening play Jules and Nic, a couple living in Los Angeles with their teenage children, Joni and Laser. Both children were conceived via artificial insemination, and eventually decide to try and meet with their birth father, Paul. As Paul begins to become a part of the family, a good deal of friction begins to arise between the parents and their childrens’ make-shift father figure, threatening the foundation of the whole family.

Not since 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine” have the ins, outs, and dynamics of an American family been captured so honestly. This can be attributed to the truly fantastic ensemble cast. Annette Bening gives a career-best performance, playing an emotionally conflicted mother with depth, warmth and character. Julianne Moore (perhaps my very favorite modern actress) is great, although Bening’s character is undoubtedly more fleshed-out. But the real surprises here are the teenage children, Josh Hutcherson and “Alice in Wonderland”s Mia Wasikowska: They may be the most realistic, genuine youth performances in a very long time. They may not always be likable, but they feel real, which for me is immensely preferable.

The thing that works so much with this film is that the all the elements (script, cast, story) converge so organically and so seamlessly. We are immediately drawn into the lives of these characters, and the film never squanders our attention. Oddly enough, this movie is also hilarious. The humor is definitely more dialogue-driven than situation-driven, which is fairly unusual these days.

“The Kids Are All Right” comes in an strong summer for independent movie-making, and I have completely fallen in love with this film. If you can call yourself a fan of film, you owe it to yourself to see this film.

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