764 – 3 Days to Kill (**)

Image from sfstation.com
Image from sfstation.com

Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve seen plenty of Kevin Costner movies, and I’m well aware of his, er, limitations. And maybe I’m in the minority, but I think that if the role he’s playing meets those limitations, then he can be a fine actor. His role in 3 Days to Kill, as a CIA killer trying to reconnect with his estanged daughter, is not one of those roles. What we have here is a sentimental action movie that requires a fair amount of emoting – even for an assassin – and that’s just not Kevin Costner’s idiom.

Ethan Renner (Costner) is dying, and his doctor gives him three months to live. Ethan sets up a will with his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) with the promise that she not tell their teenage daughter Zoe (Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit). Ethan, who has all the personality of a bowl of oatmeal and a name straight out of Spy Movie Screenwriting 101, wants to slip back into his (resentful) daughter’s life after leaving her and her mother five years prior, and he figures that since they’re all in the same city (Paris, of course), he’ll get that chance.

But then the cliches and stock characters really pile up. Ethan is cornered by another CIA agent, a Vivi (Amber Heard), who says she has a super-secret drug that’ll cure Ethan’s malady, but in exchange she wants him to find the notorious, the nefarious Albino and his boss, The Wolf. He has three days to find the men and bring them to justice – one way or another! – and simultaneously watching over Zoe while her mom is away on business.

Asking the stone-faced Costner to do much other than appear disinterested is a tall order, and it doesn’t help that the two villains are both lame, generic knockoffs. So the action part isn’t very…well, active. The dramatic part, the tension between Zoe and her dad, is a bit better, but even it is hampered by a way-too-snotty attitude on the part of the teen that abruptly morphs into a sweet little lamb. In fact, all three female leads (Nielsen, Heard, Steinfeld) are fun to watch, picking up the tempo and the mood of each scene in which they appear, which sadly isn’t all of them.

Costner being Costner is fine for some movies, like Open Range or Bull Durham, but when the script requires more personality, he’s just not the optimal choice. 3 Days to Kill, though, isn’t interesting enough to distinguish itself from others of its kind, even if Costner’s sleepy performance is factored out.

3 Days to Kill</b>: **

763 – The Maze Runner (***)

Image from kamislibrarythoughts.blogspot.com
Image from kamislibrarythoughts.blogspot.com
The Maze Runner is an exceptionally entertaining little movie that belies its origins as a young-adult story. It’s one of those increasingly rare movies that make excellent use of such quaint amenities as setting and atmosphere to instill a real sense of panic, courage, determination, and fear in even the most disaffected teenager. It’s tightly paced, with few logical inconsistencies to nitpick, too.

It all begins when Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up to find himself in a rapidly ascending elevator stocked with what appear to be provisions of some kind. When the elevator stops and the top is opened, he discovers that he’s the latest arrival in an all-boys community that’s at the center of a giant, ever-changing, complex stone maze. The boys, some of whom have been there for a long time, have established a pacifistic community that relies on those monthly provisions and their own hard work (building shelters, low-level farming) to survive.

But that maze. It’s enormous and inscrutable. There are specialists, called Runners, who enter the maze each morning in order to map it and to try to find a way out. But if they don’t return by dusk, the maze’s stone doors will close, leaving the hapless teens inside for the night. And no one has ever spent a night in the maze and survived.

This is the ominous, bleak scenario with which young Thomas is presented. Alby (Aml Ameen), the leader of the crew, explains that there are only three rules in The Glade, that happy little faux-Paradise in which they all live: do your part, don’t hurt another Glade resident, and don’t feed them after midnight. Wait, sorry, that last one is from Gremlins. I meant that Gladers (uh huh) are forbidden to go into the maze. Well, unless they happen to be Runners.

So, once a month they get new supplies and a new young dude. But once Thomas arrives, things start to be a little different in the Glade. A runner is stung by a Griever (they’re nasty robotic creatures who lurk in the maze) in broad daylight. Stings aren’t good – they incapacitate the stung person and imbue them with violent tendencies. As such, he who has been stung is necessarily banished from The Glade, for the safety of the rest of the clan.

Thomas isn’t like everyone else, as the somewhat-hotheaded Gally (Will Poulter, Chronicles of Narnia: The Dawn Treader) is quick to point out. Gally notices that things seem a little off since Thomas’s arrival, and he blames the greenie for disrupting what felt like a little slice of heaven. But on Thomas’s side are Alby, Alby’s second in command Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and the most-recent new blood, a young boy named Chuck (Blake Cooper), who looks a lot like Chunk from The Goonies.

Something has changed with Thomas’s arrival; it seems that whoever or whatever is behind the maze’s creation is changing the rules. For one thing, an unscheduled arrival of the elevator yields a new member for the group: a girl. The first one, in fact. It’s Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who appears to know Thomas from before their time in The Glade. Both Thomas and Theresa have dreams regarding their “before time” – again, unlike the others.

Thomas is acutely aware that the existence of the group in The Glade is not necessarily permanent, as evidenced by the attacking Grievers and the various infighting of the Gladers. Thomas wishes to find out more, and Gally simply doesn’t, content to keep things as they are. This is the crux of the movie’s moral issue – is it better to keep what one has, even if one has little and under repressive conditions, or to strive to escape those conditions on the hope of finding a better life elsewhere?

Leaving aside the morality of having teenagers battle robot-animal hybrids (goodness knows we’ve seen plenty of movies about kids killing enemies or each other lately), the eternal question of why the boys and Teresa are even in The Glade lingers over them all. It’s just that Gally and his small band of followers don’t want to know the answer, and Thomas and his desperately do.

The action is fierce and creative. Even the battles with various Grievers are well shot (sometimes tough to do with robots, because with so much activity it can be difficult to discern what’s what and who’s who, particularly in a low-light setting), and the maze is something to behold – a real work of art, were it real. The acting is better than might be expected for a young-adult film, and O’Brien, Brodie-Sangster, and Poulter are each well cast.

It’s obvious that The Maze Runner is intended to be a franchise – if it enjoys box-office success, of course. If this turns out to be another Golden Compass, then this may be the only Maze Runner movie we see. Which is a shame, because there are plenty of dangling plot lines at the end. Even so, the movie is exciting and persuasive and doesn’t try to dumb itself down for the sake of its audience.

The Maze Runner: ***

Review: Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

Speaking of minimalist movies, the other night I caught Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), a low-key story about a young woman who comes to the United States from Hungary, her boho cousin, and her cousin’s friend. This is an undemanding, entertaining little film that relies most heavily on its actors’ fine performances.

Willie (jazz musician John Lurie) is a hipster, at least as much of one as 1984 had to offer. He lives in a tiny, tiny apartment in New York, and he’s expecting his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint, recently seen in a story arc on Louie) to arrive from Hungary and spend the night before heading to Ohio to live with their aunt. But poor Aunt Dottie (Cecillia Stark) will be in the hospital for the next fortnight, so Eva necessarily crashes with Willie. Willie’s miffed that his blossoming (untrue) social life will take a hit with Eva around, and he treats his cousin with some scorn, like an unwanted puppy. Soon, Willie’s friend Eddie (Richard Edson) shows up, and he’s a kinder, gentler (if submissive) version of Willie.

In the second act, Eva has left for Ohio, but after a year the guys miss her and, after winning some money in a fixed poker game, head out to visit. But, bored (again) with Ohio, they head to Florida with Eva for some deserved rest and relaxation.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this superficially uncomplex film is the way the trio’s interrelationships develop. Willie becomes more tolerant of Eva, to the point where he’s willing to drive from New York to Ohio to visit. And as time progresses, Willie and Eddie are more on even ground with each other (Eddie becomes more assertive).

This isn’t a movie about nothing, but it’s a close approximation. Lurie and Balint mesh well together. Balint’s Eva is neither a shrinking violet (being new to the country and all) nor a pugnacious harridan. She’s smarter than she looks – and certainly wiser than Willie and Eddie. But the other two aren’t one dimensional, either, as Jarmusch’s efficient script allows each to grow and to communicate so much by saying so little.

Stranger Than Paradise is a beautiful little movie, filmed in black and white to better illustrate the inevitable hopelessness the characters endure. It’s one of those cases in which less is truly more, as Jarmusch’s immersive atmosphere lightly complements the strong acting from the three leads.

762 – Guardians of the Galaxy (***1/2)

Image from flicksandbits.com
Image from flicksandbits.com
Finally, I get to see Guardians of the Galaxy while it’s still in theaters, and I’m glad I did. It’s the story of a ragtag band of five heroes fighting against evil in the universe. The fact that one of them is a raccoon and other is a tree is immaterial, as is the fact that each of them is a criminal of little repute. Point is, they’re good guys taking on the evil Ronan, a being who seeks a legendary Infinity Stone, an ancient artifact that can grant the possessor devastating powers (and often death).

The Infinity Stone is held inside something called the Orb, about the size of a softball. The Stone itself is a gem on the same order as the Cosmic Cube seen in Captain America: The First Avenger. So, yes, the universe in which The Guardians exist is the same one in which Cap and the rest of the Avengers exist. Seeking the Orb is Ronan (Lee Pace), at the behest of the mighty Thanos (an uncredited Josh Brolin) so that Thanos will help eradicate the planet Xandor for him. In any event, it’s a middling thief named Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star Lord, who grabs the Orb himself in a cave on an abandoned planet. Ronan’s thugs, led by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), attack Quill, but the latter manages to escape in his chrome spaceship.

Quill tries to sell the Orb to a broker, but when it’s learned that Ronan is involved, the broker declines, which leads to Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned assassin, attacking Peter in order to retrieve the Orb, under the orders of Thanos, her adopted father. Ah, but at the same time, two bounty hunters – a riotous raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and a sentient tree named Groot (Vin Diesel) spot Quill, who by this time is a very, very wanted man. They, too, join the melee, but all four of them wind up captured and sent to a high-security prison called Kyln, which seems like a combination of “killing” and “kiln,” and which in any event looks like a bad place to be. And, if you’re Gamora, it is, because she’s Thanos’ daughter, and much of the criminals in Kyln have had their planets, homes, and families destroyed by Thanos. It is also at Kyln that our quartet meets up with the fifth member of their tribe: Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), who has a personal vendetta against Ronan. Drax is huge, sort of blue, and is deeply sensitive – although he has no idea how metaphors work.

Not only is the action fast paced, the dialog – perfectly delivered by a top-notch cast – is terrific and hilarious. Sure, a prevailing theme is the old chestnut about people from diverse backgrounds coming together to fight a common enemy, but think of this as a higher-tech Star Wars, except with fewer robots. There are cultural references to the 80s (when Quill was abducted, as a young boy, from Earth), too. The chemistry among all of the leads is spot on; with each taking turns at saving the lives of the others. Even the plant-like Groot, who’s often described as the muscle of the operations, shows plenty of savvy and a willingness to sacrifice himself to save others. There may be a lesson there somewhere.

Along with Pratt, Saldana, Bautista, and the voices of Diesel and Cooper, the supporting cast features Benicio del Toro as a collector of rare objects, Hounsou, Michael Rooker as a fellow scoundrel to Peter Quill, John C. Reilly as a Xandorian official, and Glenn Close as Nova Prime (ruler of Xandor).

In the end, good things happen. It’s a comic-book movie, for goodness sake, so that’s not a spoiler. But it’s not really the end. Guardians of the Galaxy is a huge success as a standalone movie, and it leads into not only its own sequel but also that of The Avengers. If you look closely, you can spot some remnants of other Marvel Comics, items that may (or may not) indicate who or what will be involved in future cinematic stories from the studio.

Guardians of the Galaxy is certainly fit to be in the same, ahem, universe inhabited by other blockbuster superhero films, like The Avengers, Thor, and Iron Man. It’s visceral entertainment.

Guardians of the Galaxy: ***1/2

761 – The Drop (**1/2) [The Critical Critics]

New review up!


Review: Primer (2004)

Primer is alternately fascinating but puzzling, tedious but exciting, intriguing but flawed. It’s a shortish film (78 minutes) that manages to plod along until a big reveal is made about halfway through the movie; then, just as it arouses some interest, it becomes a frustrating exercise in nonlinear storytelling. That’s a shame, because the left turn that the plot makes at that midway point could have opened up a world of possibilities. It’s even possible that the idea introduced in the movie could have been expanded more efficiently to cut down on some incoherence and unnecessary overplotting.

This is one of those movies that’s tough to summarize without giving away crucial parts of the plot. So let’s try for a gist instead. Four friends, who work for the same corporation during the day, also work together nights and weekends on pet science projects. Two of the friends, Abe and Aaron, decide to work on a project independently of their comrades after the foursome disagrees about which direction the group’s interests should follow. The project that Abe and Aaron work on, in Aaron’s garage, is to design technology that allows physical objects to lose weight. But as with much scientific studies, the research has some unintended consequences, yielding an invention that’s beyond the wildest imagination of Abe and Aaron.

That they make this discovery is pretty awesome, and the subsequent efforts to harness/utilize the discovery, even profit from it are plausible and sincere. But for me, the movie had two major flaws, one for each half of the film. In the first half, much of the necessary exposition comes in the form of dialogue, often between Abe and Aaron. However, a pervasive characteristic of the dialogue is that each character routinely talks over the others. Considering the complexity of the plot, it was a little frustrating to hear a lot of dialogue that simply couldn’t be parsed. This made it quite difficult to follow even the genesis of the plot, let alone the complications that follow. In the second half, after the Great Reveal gives the viewer a whole new movie, there are so many strands of logic and off-screen permutations that again, it’s easy to get lost. And because the characters weren’t sharing everything with each other (or the audience) anyway, there’s so much confusion here. So, so much confusion. But that’s what the Internet’s for.

Primer: **1/2

760 – The Purge (***)

thepurge_053013_1600In the future (the year 2022), crime is essentially nonexistent and the unemployment rate is 1%. But one night a year, the country’s fine citizens are permitted to commit any crime they wish, without penalty, including murder. It’s the ultimate way to blow off steam. Twelve hours of mayhem, and then the population surplus is reduced. That’s life with The Purge.

The Purge – the event, not the movie – is sold as a good thing, something that keeps everyone in harmony for the other 364 days in the year. No crime? Almost everyone’s employed? All due to The Purge, apparently. Some see it with a more cynical eye, though; those who can afford to defend themselves, their family, and their property against the onslaught of violence will probably be just fine. But those who live in the poorer sections of their city…well, they’re there to be Purged.

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) lives with his family in a gated community. James sells security systems, which as you might guess becomes a lucrative business around the time of The Purge each year, on March 21. The Sandin family has a very nice, expansive house, nestled among a plethora of other “haves.” Thus James, wife Mary (Lena Headey), son Charlie (Max Burkholder), and daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) feel safe, removed from the anarchy of the annual ritual.

Until, of course, a still-unsure-if-he-supports-The-Purge Charlie decides, after the sirens have signaled the beginning of the madness, to let a bloody homeless man (Edwin Hodge of As Above, So Below) into their home. Ooh, bad call. See, some devout, well-armed Purgers are looking for the guy, and sure enough the Sandins’ neighbors have ratted them out as harboring the guy. Does James hand over the man, or do the mercenaries take the house by force?

Like You’re Next, The Purge centers on a group of people being attacked unexpectedly. James does have weapons, but it’s quickly apparent that his security system is more of a nominal deterrent than anything. The villains find it surprisingly easy to get inside. And with the lights out – yep, no power except for the generator that’s somehow powering only the multiple cameras – and the family separated from each other, it’s utter chaos at Chez Sandin.

Also like You’re Next, there’s a nifty twist at the end. Sort of makes up for plot holes or just missing information. Here’s a question: Since all weapons at Level 4 and below are legal during The Purge (and presumably illegal the rest of the year), how do law-enforcement officials discern whether a higher-grade weapon has been used outside of the annual Purge? It’s not explicit in the movie, but I guess crimefighting is just that good in the future. But then I was thinking, what if it’s good by virtue of instilling fear in the populace? That might control everyone for much of a year, but when it came time for The Purge, wouldn’t cops be the first ones on the firing line? (Note: in a prologue voiceover, we’re informed that elected officials have immunity.)

The Purge offers some interesting food for thought. Would you be willing to live in a complete police state in order to have a crime-free society with jobs for everyone? On the plus side, you get to steal/vandalize/rape/pillage/murder to your heart’s content. On the negative side, you could be the victim of all of that and not live to see another Purge. Kind of a dilemma, eh?

But make no mistake, this isn’t a movie that dwells on heavy issues. It’s a thriller designed to shock and entertain, and to that end The Purge does a bloody good job.

The Purge: ***

759 – The Last of Robin Hood (**1/2) [The Critical Critics]

New review up!

At The Critical Critics!

758 – To Be Takei (***1/2)

My new review of To Be Takei is up at The Critical Critics!

Have a look-see!

Review: Wanted (2008)

In 2008’s Wanted, James McAvoy plays an anxious computer jockey, taken advantage of by all who know him, who discovers not only that his long-lost dad has been murdered and that said dad was actually an elite assassin but also that he himself has super-spy skills and must be trained to harness them. And one of his fellow assassins is Angelina Jolie. So it’s basically a fantasy aimed at shlubby white males.

McAvoy’s Wesley is an office drone who takes medication for his anxiety and is bullied by his abusive stapler-clicking boss and whose buddy (played by Chris Pratt) has been boinking Wesley’s harpy girlfriend. He lives in an apartment alongside an elevated railroad. His life sucks. So you can imaging his surprise when he’s confronted by a mysterious woman named Fox (Jolie) while getting his prescription filled. A man has tracked him to the drugstore, she purrs, and he’s about to kill you. A shootout ensues. Fox and Wesley escape, and he’s brought to a textile factory to meet the suave Mr. Sloan, who gives Wesley the lowdown on his origins (every hero needs one) and gives him a motive – to find and assassinate the man who murdered his father.

But before that can happen, we must endure a training montage. Wesley learns how to fight with knives – and gets plenty of slices of his own. Wesley learns how to take a punch while being tied to a chair. Wesley learns how to fire a gun so that the bullet curves around obstacles. You know, standard-issue stuff. And then he’s ready! Wait, no he’s not. Sloan makes him do some killin’ missions. You know, to keep up appearances with the other assassins. The basic idea is that the looms in the textile factory contain coded messages that, when decoded, provide the name of the assassin group’s next target.

The story is based on a comic book, or graphic novel, whichever is appropriate, so suspension of disbelief is paramount. Take the idea behind curving bullets. Or that Wesley can suddenly get ripped and become great at hand-to-hand fighting. Or that there’s a magical soaking tub that heals everything from scratches to broken bones. Gotta just buy into it. Fail to do so at your own peril, is what I’m getting at here.

Anyway, I liked the movie. A lot of exhilarating action, and then there’s Jolie. Hardly says a word for the first hour of the movie. Easy work if you can get it. Come to think of it, she doesn’t say much in the movie, and I’m betting a stunt double helped in some of the action scenes. Now that’s a good career choice.

Wanted was as outlandishly high energy as one might expect, so I’d recommend it for action movie fans, or comic-book fans, and especially Jolie fans.

Wanted: ***

757 – Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

Image from movies.film-cine.com
Image from movies.film-cine.com
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, answering all of those questions from the end of #1, is silly fun. Which is a good thing, seeing as how it’s a cartoon aimed at little kids. And me, naturally. This was right up my alley.

It’s a simple story. That wonderful machine created by Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) that bestowed food falling from the sky for the island town of Swallow Falls has been deactivated, thanks to a plethora of food and a desire for people not to be harmed by chunks of sustenence dropping on them. Now the island must be cleaned up, and the corporation Live Corp., run by Flint’s idol Chester V (Will Forte) gets the contract. The town’s citizens are relocated temporarily while Flint realizes his lifelong dream and becomes an employee at Live Corp. The problem? It seems that the food created by the machine has become…sentient. And it’s fighting back!

Flint and his friends – Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), cameraman Manny (Benjamin Bratt), policeman Earl (Terry Crews, stepping in for Mr. T), Chicken Brent (Andy Samberg), Steve the Monkey, and Flint’s dad Tim (James Caan) – head back to the island. The mission: locate the machine and shut it down. But it seems that Chester and his orangutan assistant Barb (Kristen Schaal) have other plans, plans too devious to mention in detail here, lest your eyes be singed.

Anyway, here’s the cool thing. The sentient foodstuffs are basically tangible portmanteaus of food and animal, like the wild tacodile, the watermelephant, the pie-thon, the cheespider, and the bananostrich. Luckily, most of these creatures were benign to begin with. I mean, there aren’t any lions or tigers or bears or scorpions. Now, setting aside the question of what these Foodimals would eat, since they themselves are made up of food, these are creative inventions. Almost makes you want to buy one or two as stuffed animals.

Meanwhile, back at the boat, Tim bonds with sentient pickles over fishing. I swear, I am so glad this movie was rooted in reality. I mean, sure, pickles probably couldn’t cast that well, but still – kudos are deserved here.

This is about Flint’s needing to choose between his idol and his friends and family, between doing what he knows will help his inventing career and what he knows is right. It’s about being reminded about those closest to you, lest you disdain their influence. It’s also about being able to change one’s mind in light of new evidence, and it’s about not killing anything that has eyes and/or talks. It’s also about 95 minutes.

Hader is terrific, as is the supporting cast, even when they’re not given much to do but run and hide. Or cackle evilly. I was more impressed with the vocalizations of the Foodimals, such as Barry the strawberry or the pickles, voiced by codirector Cody Cameron. Kind of thought Frank Welker had stumbled on set.

No meatballs, ironically enough.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2: ***

Review: As Above, So Below

My review of As Above, So Below, about a group exploring the catacombs beneath Paris, is now up on The Critical Critics!

756 – Oldboy (*1/2)

Image from comicvine.com
Image from comicvine.com
Last night, it was Oldboy’s turn on the viewing screen. This would be Spike Lee’s 2013 remake, not the original Korean masterpiece. Josh Brolin stars as a man who’s inexplicably imprisoned for 20 years and then, just as inexplicably, allowed to escape. Also among the cast are Elizabeth Olsen as a kind-hearted clinic worker and Samuel L. Jackson as himself. (Okay, not really.)

The trouble? If you’ve seen the original bloody mess (in a good way), then you have no reason to see this. Much like Gus van Sant’s remake of Psycho in 1998, 2013’s Oldboy is pretty much the same as its predecessor. That’s fine if you’re making a horror movie, maybe, or an action movie – films that can skate by with gaps in plot. But if one of the highlights of the premise is a shocking twist, then either you’re counting on your audience not having seen the original or you think it doesn’t matter even if they have. True, Chang-wook Park’s movie was in Korean with subtitles, but it had (and continues to have) a strong cult following in the U.S. as a visceral, alarming masterpiece with a truly malicious twist ending. That’s what made that movie so special. Spike Lee’s version merely copies a winning formula, but if people have an idea of what the out-of-left-field plot twist is, the impact of that twist is somewhat blunted.

Here’s a second problem. In the original, the violence is over the top camp. In the remake, it’s less over the top and more of a cheesefest. Picture this – one iconic scene in both films has our protagonist trying to escape from the evil clutches of his captors. Seemingly scores of henchmen pour out of elevators and doors, trapping our man in a hallway. In Park’s version, the bloodletting seems to be intentionally comical. In Lee’s version, it just looks comically stupid. You don’t have to slow down the DVD to notice that, while waiting their turn to attack, the thugs will jump up, down, ahead, back, to give the impression that they’re in on the action. If Lee was trying to poke fun at how a group of crooks never attacks all at once, then lack of subtlety hurts the scene; instead of a fine tweak with a wrench, we get bludgeoned with a sledgehammer.

As the movie progressed, I kept in mind the Big Twist. As I noted above, it’s still there, essentially unchanged. I’m not sure what Lee could have done to make his twist differ, even a little, from Park’s twist. Maybe there was nothing to do. In which case, my question is simple – Why remake the movie in the first place?

Brolin is really good and carries the film in some scenes. Olsen is even better here than she was in Martha Marcy May Marlene; she has a strong screen presence and more than holds her own with Brolin (and Jackson, although they have scant time together). The problem here isn’t the acting. The problem is the writing and the directing. This Oldboy is generic, lifeless, and redundant.

Oldboy: *1/2

Review: The Haunted Strangler (1957)

Last night I checked out the terrific The Haunted Strangler, in which Boris Karloff plays a novelist (!) and social reformer who believes a man was wrongly executed for a series of strangulations twenty years prior. James Rankin connects the murders instead to a doctor who performed the autopsy on the condemned man and who was present at the burial. Naturally, his investigation takes him down a twisted path in which he more or less becomes the strangler himself.

At first, this seems like a typical low-budget Karloff horror movie, but in addition to his talents it has a couple of things going for it – one is the transformation from normal Mr. Rankin into the Strangler, and another is the major plot twist about three-fourths of the way into the movie. Seriously, did not see that coming. I clearly underestimated the depth of this plot.

Karloff doesn’t ham it up, slowly evolving from a calm, thoughtful chap into an unhinged obsessive, and he’s surrounded by capable actors (Elizabeth Allen, Anthony Dawson, Tim Turner). And there’s truly an old-school horror feel to the movie. It both looks and feels fearful.

755 – The Expendables 3 (**1/2)

Image from boomstickcomics.com
Image from boomstickcomics.com
With The Expendables 3, you get exactly what you expect to get, as long as you’re expecting a exponentially cheesy throwback to 80s action movies that supercedes not only its two immediate predecessors in terms of one-dimensionality but also those of the earlier era. This is no Die Hard or Rambo; it’s more like an old Jeff Speakman or Wings Hauser movie, at least in terms of plot. There is that magnificent cast, however, so if you like seeing a lot of interesting actors in the same movie, this might be the one for you – even if most of the cast is pretty close to collecting Social Security. Well, if they needed to, anyway.

Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) takes his team to snag a high-profile arms dealer at the behest of the CIA (in the person of a Mr. Drummer, played by Harrison Ford). On the way, they break an old pal of Barney’s, Doc (Wesley Snipes), an original Expendable himself. But trouble awaits when they get to their destination and discover that – dun dun DUN – the mystery man is actually Barney’s old partner Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who Barney thought he’d killed years ago. Yeah, maybe he didn’t do that after all. Anyway, Stonebanks fights back, and one of Barney’s guys is wounded. They pull back, and Barney reasseses the situation. His solution – get rid of the current team (Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Dolph Lundgren) in favor of a younger, hungrier squad (including Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Kellan Lutz, and Ronda Rousey) to avenge his wounded mate and take down his ex-partner. Because a third movie in a franchise full of old guys desperately needs a change in direction, you see.

Predictably, the new guys are a little eclectic (one’s a woman! one’s a hacker!) for old-school Barney, and just as predictably the old guard resents being let go. Ah, what the hell, let’s all go! So everyone goes to beat up Mel Gibson; even Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) shows up. Of course, Gibson being the super bad guy and all, he has an actual army awaiting them – I believe it was the Azerbaijan military. These guys, who apparently have nothing else to do but attack 10-15 in an abandoned hotel, have tanks, helicopters, RPGs, you name it. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the good guys sort of hold their own. I know, it’s a twist.

It’s a violent movie, but it’s rated PG-13. There are few curse words spoken. At least I think that was the case, because I was distracted by the family of four a row behind me, what with their toddler and four-year-old kid in tow who never shut up. Who takes little kids to The Expendables? These guys. Anyway. It’s almost a shame that this wasn’t R rated, because we could have had ourselves a relatively good movie. Blood and guts and veins in my teeth, that sort of movie. But no, this one got toned down so much that the writers had to rely on the actors, and come on. These guys aren’t actors so much as positionable action figures. There isn’t much witty repartee, either, although there are a few nods to earlier movies – catchphrases from Schwarzenegger and Stallone, for example. Or to Snipes’ personal life.

The Expendables 3 was not a terrible movie, and I appreciate that. Good job on the filmmakers for not stinking too much. But this probably is one that can wait for home video. That is, if parts 1 and 2 left you with so many unanswered questions.

The Expendables 3: **1/2

Independent reviews, on account of I don't get paid.

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