Lionsgate

The Cabin in the Woods (2011, Drew Goddard)

I didn’t have much hope for Cabin in the Woods; though, I mean, director and co-writer Drew Goddard… he’s gone on to stuff. Good stuff. Right?

But if I’d known it was written in three days—it shows—and cost $30 million—it actually looks pretty darn good for $30 million, saving the money shots until the final third or so. And I guess it’s well-paced? Like, it’s terribly long and exasperating as the film threats the various unlikable cast members but then once it gets into the “final girl” sequence, it’s a lot better. I foolishly even had the wrong final girl picked; I thought Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon were going to do something interesting with genre. Or maybe I just assumed they were going to try to do something interesting. Maybe feign something interesting.

I didn’t expect them to mix together a few standard sci-fi tropes, the Evil Dead, a not-Ace Ventura Jim Carrey vehicle, a pseudo-gory Texas Chainsaw knock-off, Whedon and Goddard’s celebrity “Lost” fanfic, maybe two other things I recognized and forgot, plus all the horror in-jokes and references I didn’t get. I got the Hellraiser one, of course, because that one was peculiarly… not desperate but maybe wishful. Like for a moment it became a different movie. Though I was confused the whole time because I thought it was supposed to be the merman not the Hellraiser guy. Cabin is often very talky and very fast and it’s not clear during the first half they’re ever going to painfully detail the big secret with a special genre guest star (if you’re willing to stretch genre). It’s a solid guest star “get,” but it would’ve been better with just a voice over and maybe just been Jamie Lee Curtis.

Even getting past the bad writing—because it’s not just a string of tropes fit into very specific, very literal boxes, it’s still terribly written—the acting is all atrocious as well. Cabin creates a role just for Bradley Whitford—paired with Richard Jenkins like they’re Lemmon and Matthau or something—and it’s bad. Like, the part’s bad and Whitford’s obnoxious. Jenkins is better, but definitely not good. He too is obnoxious, with a more explicit misogyny thing thrown in for good measure.

But the leads—Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Chris Hemsworth, Jesse Williams, Fran Kranz—they’re bad. Hutchison, Hemsworth, and Kranz are really, really, really bad.

It’s bad writing on the characters and all, but the acting’s still bad. If Connolly and Williams were really good, there might be some relief but they’re not. They’re just not as bad as the rest of them. They don’t get actively worse. When it seems like Connolly might be getting better but then doesn’t, it’s not a negative. It maintains. Hemsworth, Kranz, and Hutchison get worse throughout.

Good photography from Peter Deming, okay editing from Lisa Lassek (Lassek’s cuts are fine, the content’s just bad), strangely unmemorable score by David Julyan. I remember a lot of emphasis music but not any of the specifics about it, which is probably for the best.

Goddard’s direction is confused for the first half, when he’s homaging left and right, but it’s at least a low competent for the second half, as the film movies into a new realm.

The second realm is… technically more interesting than the first and the film definitely doesn’t get as bad as it sometimes threatens. But there’s only so good it’s ever going to get given the leads. And the writing.

Maybe it would’ve been better as a TV show? They could’ve called it “Lost in the Woods” or something.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Drew Goddard; written by Joss Whedon and Goddard; director of photography, Peter Deming; edited by Lisa Lassek; music by David Julyan; production designer, Martin Whist; costume designer, Shawna Trpcic; produced by Whedon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Kristen Connolly (Dana), Chris Hemsworth (Curt), Anna Hutchison (Jules), Fran Kranz (Marty), Jesse Williams (Holden), Richard Jenkins (Sitterson), Bradley Whitford (Hadley), Brian White (Truman), Amy Acker (Lin), and Tim DeZarn (Mordecai).


The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018, Susanna Fogel)

The Spy Who Dumped Me has, rather unfortunately, a punny title. It’s an accurate title—the film’s about spy Justin Theroux dumping his civilian and not aware he’s a spy girlfriend Mila Kunis—but it doesn’t capture the mood of the film. No doubt, it’s a hard one to title—because even though it starts with Kunis going to Europe to help Theroux on a mission (after a very well-executed gun fight), it becomes more about Kunis and best friend Kate McKinnon as they find their respective knacks in life as spies. Or at least, movie spies, who have to worry about gun fights in public places, evil trapeze artists, and “Edward Snowden” cameos. Spy purposefully goes all over the place (and all over Europe), with the core mystery being engaging enough but never the point. Spy’s all about its performances, not the MacGuffins.

Which makes Sam Heughan’s smooth British spy guy stand out as a fail. He’s fine. He’s even charming at times, but he’s… nothing special. When Kunis has her pick of spies, Theroux or Heughan, she goes Theroux—who’s got his issues too—but at last he’s got some character. Heughan looks like a British spy caricature, acts like a British spy caricature. He’s no fun. Theroux’s not really fun either, but he doesn’t have to be fun. But Heughan? He’s the straight man to partner Hasan Minhaj, whose thing is just being a boring straightedge and he’s so fun at it. Or their boss, Gillian Anderson, who plays a British spy supervisor caricature and makes it seem like a real character. Heughan’s fine, but he’s a bummer. Theroux’s… a bummer. At least one of them needs to be better.

Nicely, everything else is great so the two supporting dudes being a little lackluster doesn’t matter. And Heughan’s good with the fight stuff; he gets sympathy for being such a surprisingly solid action star. Spy gives Kunis and McKinnon a lot, keeping an undercurrent of humor. Heughan doesn’t really have the humor. Sometimes he’s got Kunis and McKinnon giving audio commentary, which brings some humor, but director Fogel handles it differently. Probably contributes to keeping Kunis and McKinnon in danger. They’re not because it’s still a fish out of water buddy comedy and it can’t kill either buddy but the film’s got to put them in danger for about an hour straight before a resolution. Spy isn’t short—it’s real close to two hours—and it’s really well-paced and keeping tension in an action comedy isn’t easy. Luckily there’s a lot of violence. Spy goes all in on the action violence; lots of great action set pieces; they’re what make the movie work in the first act. It demands attention.

Kunis is a good lead, but McKinnon walks away with it. She’s really funny. Even when the scene isn’t really funny, McKinnon’s really funny. And her third act stuff is impossible and she makes it happen. Fogel’s careful not to showcase McKinnon too much—without not showcasing her either—and giving Kunis her time but… it’s McKinnon’s show. She’s part of all the best material. Kunis gets most of it, but third act is all McKinnon’s. Also Kunis and McKinnon are great together, which makes everything feel a lot more even throughout. It’s just… Kunis gets a romance subplot and McKinnon gets to be hilarious. Shame Kunis doesn’t have better dudes in the triangle. But Heughan’s fine.

He’s fine.

Great cameos from Jane Curtin, Paul Reiser, and Fred Melamed. Ivanna Sakhno’s awesome as the Bond villain assassin out to get Kunis and, especially, McKinnon.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is really good at being really funny and good enough when it’s not being really funny.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Susanna Fogel; written by Fogel and David Iserson; director of photography, Barry Peterson; edited by Jonathan Schwartz; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Marc Homes; costume designer, Alex Bovaird; produced by Brian Grazer and Erica Huggins; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Mila Kunis (Audrey), Kate McKinnon (Morgan), Sam Heughan (Sebastian), Hasan Minhaj (Duffer), Justin Theroux (Drew), Ivanna Sakhno (Nadedja), Jane Curtin (Carol), Paul Reiser (Arnie), Lolly Adefope (Tess), and Gillian Anderson (Wendy).


John Wick (2014, Chad Stahelski)

John Wick is all right. It feels like if it’d been made in the nineties, it’d have been revolutionary. Instead, it uses all the revolutionary and not revolutionary film techniques since the nineties to make the ultimate in mainstream heavy metal neo-pulp, with a twist of seventies exploitation for good measure. It succeeds because of lead Keanu Reeves, who’s got the best pleasant angry face and does enough of his stunts—and director Stahelski knows how to showcase Reeves during those stunts—to keep the viewer engaged with his unstoppable killing machine as he moves through the video game of a story.

The film opens with Reeves seemingly fatally wounded, nothing left to do but watch a video of him and Bridget Moynahan on a beach. Cue flashback montage showing how Reeves and Moynahan were happily together (married we find out, post-montage), then she dies (from a long-term fatal illness), then she (posthumously) gets Reeves an adorable little puppy to keep him company. To this point, we haven’t seen Reeves do any action hero stuff. In fact, it feels like the film’s doing a riff on tearjerkers, only tongue in cheek.

Only then Russian mob weasel Alfie Allen steals Reeves’s car and kills the puppy so Reeves is going to get payback. The film’s first act is a lot better written than anything else, even when it feels like video game cutscenes. And John Leguizamo’s first act cameo as the first guy from the old life Reeves meets up with. Turns out Allen is son of Reeves’s former employer, Michael Nyqvist, who owes his empire to Reeves. Great performance from Nyqvist. Not a great part, unfortunately, but a great performance nonetheless.

The rest of the film, outside the detailed world-building with hotels in a Flatiron Building stand-in where all the assassins stay and it’s off limits for contracts and everyone pays each other in single gold coins and Reeves gets power-up pills because it’s kind of just Super Mario Bros. John Wick’s never very complicated. It’s got a lot of guns (without being too gun porn-y, Stahelski’s about the action not the details), a lot of bit characters, and a lot of thorough action scenes courtesy Stahelski, producer and apparently uncredited co-director David Leitch, cinematographer Jonathan Sela, but really editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir. Ronaldsdóttir, almost as much as Reeves, makes John Wick. Even when the movie’s too loud for too long—the heavy metal action thing is no joke, they have a new Marilyn Manson song for John Wick. The film’s incredibly committed to itself. Even when it gets a little much. Stahelski’s good at the action scenes but they’re not technically innovative, they’re just excellent. The film’s a series of successfully established techniques, in action, in storytelling, smartly arranged, given life by a perfectly stone-faced Reeves and an exceptional editor.

The supporting cast has some excellent extended cameos—Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe. Lance Reddick… fine, but not excellent because it’s a crap cameo. Adrianne Palicki is better than you’d think in her extended cameo as unscrupulous fellow assassin but she’s not particularly good. She’s fine. The only one not fine is Dean Winters, as Nyqvist’s chief flunky; he serves no purpose in the film other than to take up space. Someone could make something amusing out of it, Winters does not. And Allen’s decent as the standard failed son of great mobster but he ends up with nothing to do. Except somehow be the only person Reeves can’t manage to hit.

Finally, if you are going to give John Wick a watch, I feel I need to warn you about the subtitles. The film stylizes its subtitles in some truly obnoxious ways. The worst thing isn’t even the visual appearance—I mean, of course it is but the absurd visual appearance just draws attention to the pointlessness of the dialogue. If he’s not writing monologues for the guest stars, writer Derek Kolstad’s got no idea what to say. When it’s Reeves, who doesn’t have to say anything (in fact, most of his dialogue is eventually just him repeating back statements from his adversaries), it’s fine. When it’s guest stars monologuing, it’s fine. When it’s the bad guys talking about Reeves coming to kill them and what they need to do?

It’s nonsense.

In the end, Wick’s nonsense and its successes basically even out. It’s definitely a successful action movie, but maybe not a significant one… because it’s just built on previous films’ significant successes. Wick riffs on a number of them, just with the technology and ability to execute them flawlessly, but without any character and without any risk.

So thank goodness for Reeves and Ronaldsdóttir. And Nyqvist.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Chad Stahelski; written by Derek Kolstad; director of photography, Jonathan Sela;edited by Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir; music by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard; production designer, Dan Leigh; costume designer, Luca Mosca; produced by Basil Iwanyk, David Leitch, Eva Longoria, and Mike Witherill; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov), Alfie Allen (Iosef Tarasov), Willem Dafoe (Marcus), Dean Winters (Avi), Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins), Omer Barnea (Gregori), Toby Leonard Moore (Victor), Daniel Bernhardt (Kirill), Bridget Moynahan (Helen), John Leguizamo (Aurelio), Ian McShane (Winston), Bridget Regan (Addy), and Lance Reddick (Charon).


Inherit the Viper (2019, Anthony Jerjen)

Inherit the Viper is an unfortunately titled but acceptably mediocre crime drama about rural siblings Margarita Levieva, Josh Hartnett, and Owen Teague running an opioid business. Levieva’s the merciless boss, Hartnett’s the reluctant muscle, Teague’s the enthusiastic but uninvolved teenager. Everything’s going fine—well, outside the occasional fatal overdose for customers—until Teague decides he’s got to go into business for himself. Only he’s not very bright and his idea is to steal his family’s product to sell on the side, forcing Levieva (who wanted to get Teague involved) and Hartnett (who didn’t) to make some tough, momentous decisions. Renewed interest from local law enforcement (Dash Mihok) and a justifiably enraged recent widower (Brad William Henke) complicate matters.

So, a fairly standard family crime drama.

Andrew Crabtree’s script throws a lot at the characters but in targeted bursts. Viper never overreaches. Crabtree and director Jerjen never do anything they aren’t sure they can successfully execute. The film’s got some great production values—Jerjen, cinematographer Nicholas Wiesnet, editors Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda put some drone shots to great use for establishing shots, showcasing the desolate, failed rural community. Jerjen’s composition for the talking heads scenes, which are most of the film until the final third or so, is usually the same parallel shot, giving the actors each their space. Even though Jerjen’s got the patience for the talking heads and showcasing the actors (really, the film often plays like a demo reel for its stars more than a serious dramatic effort), he never gets in close enough to really look. When Levieva finally shows her humanity, when Hartnett finally shows his fear, Jerjen doesn’t have any way to help the actors rise above the script, which is fairly pat as far as character motivation and development go. Both the script and the direction posit the characters as somewhat tragic, even though the point of Levieva is she would reject that tragedy and it would be consuming the soulful Hartnett, who has a much better understanding of the world—ostensibly due to his time in Iraq War II, but more because the script needs it—than his peers.

Well, except of course how the film then positions other people as the good folks just facilitating the opioid ring without actually getting their hands too dirty (special guest star Bruce Dern plays a bar owner and friend of the family’s absent, smalltime crook dad).

Instead of Levieva or Hartnett, the film focuses on Teague. It’s both a trope—the child grows up—and the most economical. Hartnett getting more of a focus would mean more to do with pregnant girlfriend Valorie Curry and, even though the film starts spotlighting Levieva, she barely gets any character development throughout. And, when she does, it feels like the film’s trying too hard. Because to transcend the material, the script would need to be better and there’d need to be more of a budget (the film looks great, moves well but it’s obviously streamlined as can be). Jerjen does what he can with the constraints the production’s got and it works. The drone shots do get tiring by the end but more because they never really impact how the narrative plays; they’re always technically solid. Especially set against Patrick Kirst’s score.

For over half the film, Viper acts like it isn’t going to rest the whole thing on whether or not Teague can carry it through the third act to the finish, then it hands it off to Teague and, sure, he can get it to the finish but… not spectacularly. It’s a pass and no pass situation. Teague passes, adequate, no reason to rejoice.

Levieva’s the film’s best performance, even with her character going off some rails in the third act. Hartnett’s good, but it’s a propped up majorly supporting role; Teague’s not compelling enough, Hartnett picks up the slack for it. It’s unclear whether Jerjen would be able to do more. He’s got a lot of technical chops as a director and he’s pretty good with the actors, but Viper never seems thoughtful enough. Jerjen’s successfully realizes the script but without any imagination. It’s like he’s too good, technically, to have to be inventive.

Inherit the Viper—the title’s even worse once you find out what it means—isn’t bad, it’s just rote, even with its cast’s solid efforts.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Jerjen; written by Andrew Crabtree; director of photography, Nicholas Wiesnet; edited by Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda; music by Patrick Kirst; production designer, Tracy Dishman; costume designer, Emily Batson; produced by Michel Merkt and Benito Mueller; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Margarita Levieva (Josie Conley), Josh Hartnett (Kip Conley), Owen Teague (Boots Conley), Valorie Curry (Eve), Dash Mihok (Kyle), Chandler Riggs (Cooper), Brad William Henke (Tedd), and Bruce Dern (Clay).


Fast Color (2018, Julia Hart)

Fast Color spends most its runtime saying it’s not a superhero movie—it’s just about people who happen to have superpowers—only for the third act to play like a low budget X-Men outing. And it’s not just the not-battle-in-the-streets battle-in-the-street resolution, it’s also how lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character arc becomes all about her superpowers and not her returning to her abandoned home, abandoned mother (Lorraine Toussaint), and abandoned tween daughter (Saniyya Sidney). It’s also not about how Mbatha-Raw’s gotten sober—drugs help keep her out-of-control powers in check—or how the world hasn’t had rain in the last seven or eight years. There’s a lot going on in the world of Fast Color and director Hart does a great job showing its more mundane side—utilizing the limited budget well—but engaging with the superhero movie tropes after promising to avoid them… it doesn’t undue the work of the film through most of its runtime, but it does leave the potential unrealized.

For instance, just when Mbatha-Raw and Sidney could be really connecting, the film concentrates on the superpowers. And it doesn’t even go all the way with the superpowers. It doesn’t just not show them, it doesn’t show their effect on anyone, so it’s like they’re not even there. Sorry, Fast Color’s finish is about the only disappointing thing in the film (as it compounds the problems with Toussaint’s part). Hence the harping.

The film opens with Mbatha-Raw on the run. She’s got some kind of earthquake power, which she can’t control at all but she at least tries to mitigate the damage. Water is an expensive item because of the lack of rain fall, but there’s still booze, eggs, electricity, all sorts of things just no smartphones. The whole no more rain subplot is fine but doesn’t add anything to the film. It mostly ends up serving as a budget limiter; so fine. But just fine.

Pretty soon we discover nerdy government scientist Christopher Denham is after Mbatha-Raw but also she’s gotten to her hometown, which he doesn’t realize. So she goes to mom Toussaint’s farm, even though Mbatha-Raw’s never met Sidney and Sidney doesn’t have any expectation of ever meeting Mbatha-Raw and then Toussaint makes Mbatha-Raw sleep out in the barn because her powers are so out-of-control. The film never directly addresses how Mbatha-Raw’s terrible life, on the run but also before, instead focusing on what she can do to improve her footprint, which is fine because it centers itself around Sidney’s well-being. Mbatha-Raw’s motivations and thoughts play out in her expressions versus actions or dialogue. She’s haunted by flashback sequences too. Mbatha-Raw gives an excellent lead performance but her part isn’t really enough the lead as far as the plot goes.

Most of the film is about what’s going to happen without raising much expectation. David Strathairn plays the local sheriff who’s also on Mbatha-Raw’s trail, trying not to let Denham and the feds take his case. Given how much the film ends up leveraging Strathairn, at the expense of other characters (and their actors), it’d have been nice if Strathairn weren’t involved in one of Fast Colors big secrets. The film has a lot of big secrets—well, either secrets or lies, because Toussaint wants to keep Sidney sheltered. See, Toussaint and Sidney also have powers, but they’re not as potentially damaging or affecting as Mbatha-Raw’s. When Mbatha-Raw bonds with Sidney, it’s over the powers, which is weird but the acting’s good—Sidney’s phenomenal—so Color can do whatever it wants as long as it stays focused on the characters.

The end abandons that focus and… the film suffers.

Technically, the film’s outstanding. Save the occasionally too DV night time photography. Many of photographer Michael Fimognari’s night time shots are fantastic, but when there’s a lot of movement on the screen… it looks off. Martin Pensa’s editing is good, Rob Simonsen’s music is good, Hart’s direction is good… Fast Color’s got all the pieces—well, okay, not Denham (who’s way too eh)—the script just doesn’t quite get them assembled right at the end.

The film gives Mbatha-Raw a solid lead, Sidney an okay supporting showcase (Sidney could handle more), and Toussaint a disappointing one. The film utilizes her but doesn’t showcase her, which really hurts in the third act.

Fast Color’s successful without exactly being a success.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Julia Hart; written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz; director of photography, Michael Fimognari; edited by Martin Pensa; music by Rob Simonsen; production designer, Gae S. Buckley; produced by Horowitz, Mickey Liddell, and Pete Shilaimon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Ruth), Lorraine Toussaint (Bo), Saniyya Sidney (Lila), Christopher Denham (Bill), and David Strathairn (Ellis).


Rambo: Last Blood (2019, Adrian Grunberg)

Sitting and reflecting on Rambo: Last Blood and the franchise’s thirty-seven year legacy, the best idea of the fixing the film is probably just to have Sylvester Stallone do a bunch of shots training horses. He seems really good with them. And he doesn’t seem really good at anything in Last Blood. It’s a far less physical Rambo for Stallone, who seems far less interested in being a septuagenarian action star than quickly turning around corners after the villains end up in his traps. There’s one big physical action sequence for Stallone though; he seems able enough. Just the script doesn’t offer any good action possibilities and director Grunberg is incompetent.

Last Blood is a film with limited possibilities. It’s not like Rambo is a great part with a lot of potential. He’s a pretty generic Stallone protagonist here. He’s still got PTSD, which Last Blood showcases with hilariously bad flashback newsreel footage because no one in the film’s post-production departments care about their dignity. Maybe they all used pseudonyms. Doesn’t matter, because the flashback footage goes away, along with when Stallone gets visual flashes when he’s out being Rambo (in a Mexican night club), and then never shows up after a doctor warns he’s got a concussion. Because Last Blood isn’t just bad—it’s boringly bad. Grunberg’s really, really, really bad. Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick’s script is frequently dumb, then dumber. Lots of bad things happen because Stallone doesn’t operate with forethought. So when he eventually plans how his enemies are going to attack him so he can set traps to ensnare them… well, he didn’t have that ability for forethought earlier.

The movie’s real simple. Stallone’s living on his childhood ranch, training horses, with fellow old person housekeeper Adriana Barraza and her granddaughter, Yvette Monreal. Stallone’s “Uncle John Rambo” and just wishes Monreal would spend her life training horses with him instead of going off to college. She’s really smart, even though her father left the family after the mom died. Oh, and he was physically abusive. Apparently to a dying wife (Last Blood has a lot of problems with its timeline; again, the script’s dumb). Barraza and Stallone ought to be cute together. With a sitcom intern doing a script polish and someone who could competently direct a soap opera, there would be potential with the setup. But it would take someone to write a character for Stallone to play; after thirty-seven years of Rambo as a caricature, what if we got a real character in the last movie?

We’ll never know because Last Blood’s Rambo is pretty thin. He’s also terrible at monologues. In trying to prove there’s room for a septuagenarian Rambo, Last Blood shows why there’s not. Then again, maybe if Grunberg weren’t so terrible, the movie would be better.

Anyway.

Things go wrong when Monreal goes to find her dad, ignoring Stallone and Barraza’s advice. Monreal could be good; Grunberg doesn’t know how to direct his actors and she needs direction, but she’s at least sympathetic. Sympathy isn’t exactly weakness in Last Blood, but it’s pointless. Politically, Last Blood is interestingly hands off. The wall is a failure, but because it’s a fool’s errand. As far as bad hombres… well, Last Blood makes the case every single woman living in Mexico should be granted asylum. There are also some other odd spots, like when Stallone wishes he never became Rambo and hadn’t enlisted. Also when he tells Monreal everyone in the world’s bad and she’s sheltered and she needs to not go to Mexico to find her dad but, it’s okay if she does, because her uncle has a very particular set of skills he has acquired over a very long career.

And Monreal goes through a lot. With considerable dignity since Grunberg’s so crappy. Last Blood’s never scary. Not even when good people are in danger. Sometimes because of how Grunberg and not good editors Carsten Kurpanek and Todd E. Miller cut the scene, sometimes because of how Stallone and Cirulnick’s write the scene, sometimes just because Grunberg can’t figure out how to do an establishing shot. Technically, Last Blood is rather crappy. The editors, Grunberg, Brian Tyler’s score is godawful; but it’s Brendan Galvin’s photography. Galvin’s not good. Grunberg’s awful but he’s awful with bad cinematography. It’s a mundane ugly but it’s an ugly.

Because Last Blood, Stallone seems to think, is a Western. Based on the script, based on his performance, it’s a Western. Set in Arizona. And Mexico. And Stallone has a farm house and trains horses and on and on. It ought to be simple to do some Western. Grunberg can’t. Because he’s awful.

There’s also the whole thing with Stallone building an intricate tunnel system and living in it, going up to hang out with Barraza, Monreal, and the horses, but otherwise he lives in the tunnel system under his family farm, which ought to be an uncomfortable statement on Vietnam vets, but isn’t because Last Blood’s got jack to do with Stallone as Rambo as veteran. It’s really, really, really weird.

The other thing about doing a Last Rambo? Stallone’s always been interesting because he’s grown as filmmaker, his ambitions have changed, matured, developed. Last Blood doesn’t come off like a passion project or a personal ambition. Even though, after the first batch of end credits roll, you do have to wonder if Stallone tinkered with the end, which is what got Kirk Douglas to walk on the first movie, or if they always planned on a stupid twist. It’s hard to say, because so much of it is stupid. Also… doesn’t matter.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Adrian Grunberg; screenplay by Matthew Cirulnick and Sylvester Stallone, based on a story by Dan Gordon and Stallone and on the character created by David Morrell; director of photography, Brendan Galvin; edited by Carsten Kurpanek and Todd E. Miller; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; produced by Avi Lerner, Yariv Lerner, Kevin King Templeton, and Les Weldon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (John), Yvette Monreal (Gabrielle), Adriana Barraza (Maria), Óscar Jaenada (Victor Martinez), Sergio Peris-Mencheta (Hugo Martínez), Fenessa Pineda (Jizzel), and Paz Vega (Carmen Delgado).


Dredd (2012, Pete Travis)

Dredd is a good time. Sure, it features exceptional ultraviolence, but director Travis finds a gimmick–the drug “Slo-Mo” slows time for its user–to make the violence appear almost academic. One wonders how they did the special effects for the sequence. Travis also never glorifies the bad guys, which is interesting for what’s sort of a superhero movie. I say “sort of” because Dredd’s more like an episode of a really good future cop show. Its present action is short; it’s a procedural.

Besides Travis’s direction–and Karl Urban’s performance as the lead–Alex Garland’s script is the major factor in the film’s success. Even when Urban’s alone in a scene, even if the shot’s from his point of view, Dredd always gives him a lot of distance. Even though he narrates the expository prologue, the viewer isn’t supposed to identify with him. The viewer’s occasionally supposed to identify with the bad guys, always with his rookie partner (Olivia Thirlby), but never with Urban. Having an indifferent protagonist work in an action movie might be Dredd’s greatest success.

Also lending to the episodic nature are the villains. Wood Harris has what almost amounts to a cameo appearance–though he’s on screen for a lot of the first half, he’s silent–and Lena Headey’s great as the big villain.

Good music from Paul Leonard-Morgan, good photography from Anthony Dod Mantle.

Dredd never tries to be ambitious; it over succeeds. Much better than the other way around.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Pete Travis; screenplay by Alex Garland, based on characters created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra; director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Mark Eckersley; music by Paul Leonard-Morgan; production designer, Mark Digby; produced by Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich and Alex Garland; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Karl Urban (Judge Dredd), Olivia Thirlby (Anderson), Lena Headey (Ma-Ma), Wood Harris (Kay), Langley Kirkwood (Judge Lex), Junior Singo (Amos), Luke Tyler (Freel), Jason Cope (Zwirner), Domhnall Gleeson (Clan Techie), Warrick Grier (Caleb) and Rakie Ayola (Chief Judge).



This post is also discussed on Judge Dredd (1995) / Dredd (2012).

The Expendables 2 (2012, Simon West)

The Expendables 2 plays a lot like an eighties “G.I. Joe” toy commercial. The vehicles all fire missiles and have detachable smaller vehicles. As opposed to having absurdly named characters with silly themes (there’s no “ninja Expendable”), the characters instead have silly names and amusing personalities. The script, from Sylvester Stallone and Richard Wenk, throws realism out the window, gets way too meta for its own good (the Terminator jokes for Arnold Schwarzenegger are immediately tiresome), but a lot of the character work is good.

The best performances are from the returning principals–Stallone, Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Terry Crews and Dolph Lundgren. While Stallone only has one good scene–opposite new (and female) Expendable Nan Yu–and Statham’s just reliable, Couture, Crews and Lundgren are hilarious. Their little asides, while absurd, often make the movie.

As for the rest… Schwarzenegger is terrible, Chuck Norris is an unbelievably bad actor (one imagines Lee Strasberg turning in his grave at every line), Jean-Claude Van Damme’s villainous (doubly, since his name is “Vilain”) but disposable and Bruce Willis is okay if slightly embarrassed.

In supporting roles, Liam Hemsworth’s awful as another new Expendable but Scott Adkins’s decent as bad guy.

Shelly Johnson’s cinematography is weak, as is Bryan Tyler’s music, but a lot of Expendables 2 is passable. Even if it does heavily rip off Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Simon West’s action is intense but cartoonish, which also describes the entire project.

Better plotting would’ve helped a bunch.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Simon West; screenplay by Richard Wenk and Sylvester Stallone, based on a story by Ken Kaufman, David Agosto and Wenk and characters created by Dave Callaham; director of photography, Shelly Johnson; edited by Todd E. Miller; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Paul Cross; produced by Danny Lerner, Les Weldon, Basil Iwanyk, John Thompson, Avi Lerner and Kevin King Templeton; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Barney Ross), Jason Statham (Lee Christmas), Jet Li (Yin Yang), Dolph Lundgren (Gunner Jensen), Chuck Norris (Booker), Jean-Claude Van Damme (Vilain), Bruce Willis (Church), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Trench), Terry Crews (Hale Caesar), Randy Couture (Toll Road), Liam Hemsworth (Billy the Kid), Scott Adkins (Hector), Nan Yu (Maggie), Amanda Ooms (Pilar) and Charisma Carpenter (Lacy).


Kick-Ass (2010, Matthew Vaughn)

Is Kick-Ass any good? Um. That question is somewhat complicated, because there are very good things about it–Chloë Grace Moretz’s fantastic as a foulmouthed twelve-year-old version of the Punisher, with some Jackie Chan thrown in, and so is “lead” Aaron Johnson, who manages not to look like he’s lost the movie he’s top-lining to every single other cast member, whether it’s Moretz, Nic Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (whose squinty nerd thing, identical to Superbad, is just annoying here) or Mark Strong, even though he does at one point or another in the film.

It’s never clear if the filmmakers realize the lead of the movie doesn’t even get to really end it (there’s a big scene between Johnson and girlfriend Lyndsy Fonseca missing) so they can set up the sequel or not.

But it doesn’t matter much, because Vaughn realizes the gleeful violence of Kick-Ass (not, however, when Johnson gets constantly beaten up while trying to do good)–it’s all about Cage and Moretz–is the selling point. Kick-Ass feels a little like one part Dirty Harry, one part inspiring father-daughter movie, half part Superbad and a little Spider-Man thrown in. I’m not sure if Vaughn was mimicking Raimi or unaware, but the film’s general incompetence with plotting resembles that movie quite a bit….

Cage is great, playing the impossible script straight, with his Adam West impression a real plus.

And the music–seemingly entirely lifted from other scores–is fine.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Matthew Vaughn; screenplay by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Jon Harris, Pietro Scalia and Eddie Hamilton; music by John Murphy, Henry Jackman, Marius De Vries and Ilan Eshkeri; production designer, Russell De Rozario; produced by Vaughn, Brad Pitt, Kris Thykier, Adam Bohling, Tarquin Pack and David Reid; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Aaron Johnson (Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass), Chloë Grace Moretz (Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl), Mark Strong (Frank D’Amico), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Chris D’Amico/Red Mist), Lyndsy Fonseca (Katie Deauxma), Clark Duke (Marty), Evan Peters (Todd), Omari Hardwick (Sgt. Marcus Williams) and Nicolas Cage (Damon Macready/Big Daddy).


Buffalo ’66 (1998, Vincent Gallo)

Near as I can recall, outside film noir, there isn’t a film like Buffalo ’66. The protagonist, played by writer/director/composer Gallo, isn’t just unlikable, he’s comically unlikable. I can very easily see the film remade with Will Ferrell in the lead. It’s like a Will Ferrell comedic tragedy, only it’s not so tragic.

I don’t really know how to talk about the film, since it’s almost more a gesture than a narrative (Gallo’s insistence on making his character such a ogre isn’t actually the problem, it’s more how he’s not willing to give anyone else a real character), so I guess I’ll just ramble.

As a director, Gallo’s got multiple personality disorder. Besides being high contrast, the film rarely looks uniform. Instead, he goes for what’s most effective scene-to-scene without taking previous scenes into account. For example, he’s got a car conversation with the actors looking into the camera, Demme-style. He doesn’t return to it. Then there’s the overly distinctive dinner scene (an intended, recognized homage). It’s actually not disjointing, just because Gallo and Christina Ricci are basically in every scene.

Buffalo ’66 is from the era when Christina Ricci was going to be a great actress. She’s fantastic in it, overcoming her thinly written character (Gallo apparently couldn’t come up with a conceivable reason she’d like him in the film). It’s terrible she hasn’t been able to fulfill her nineties promise.

It almost goes bad at the end, but doesn’t. It’s a great save.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Vincent Gallo; screenplay by Gallo and Alison Bagnall, based on a story by Gallo; director of photography, Lance Acord; edited by Curtiss Clayton; music by Gallo; produced by Chris Hanley; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Vincent Gallo (Billy Brown), Christina Ricci (Layla), Ben Gazzara (Jimmy Brown), Mickey Rourke (The Bookie), Rosanna Arquette (Wendy Balsam), Jan-Michael Vincent (Sonny), Anjelica Huston (Jan Brown) and Kevin Corrigan (Rocky the Goon).


Scroll to Top