"I’ve been waiting all my life for a girl like you—only different!" So…not like her at all, really? (Revealing Romances 6, 1950).
"Betty is not going to grind anyone’s valves!” Oh Aunt Adele, you’re such a prude! (Sweethearts 34, 1956). Betty gets a makeover, stops being a tomboy who works on cars, and finds true love!
"No chance for kisses!" (Wedding Bells 9, 1955). “And the worst part was that her father insisted on wearing that maid’s costume and wig every time I came over! It was creepy!”
Women beware! Never introduce yourself to a man. It “wouldn’t be proper!” “People would talk!” and “He might get the wrong impression of you!” Yes, just wait for “fate” to “bring about an introduction” to that man you love (even though you’ve never met him). Wedding Bells 9 (1955) and Love Letters 31 (1953).
“The Expendables” series is a guilty pleasure that I don’t feel too guilty about. These films don’t give me quite the adrenaline rush I get from martial-arts movies, but I do love me some shootin’ and ‘splosions. I also like homages and meta-humour, and “The Expendables” movies deliver those things as well—never completely breaking the fourth wall, just denting it a little.
The Expendables 3 slips a bit (but not too much) from its predecessors, unsurprisingly. It is, after all, the third film in the series and much of the novelty has worn off. It’s also rated PG-13, which seems to bother some people more than it does me—even though I don’t like the downgrade from an R-rating on general libertarian principles—but there is still an incredibly high body count on display, it’s just that nobody bleeds visibly when they’re shot or stabbed or blown up. Nice, sanitised violence, that’s the ticket.
Additionally, the film is too long (over 2 hours), almost entirely due to the inclusion of a “Expendables Jr.” sub-plot. Barney Ross (Stallone) doesn’t want his old pals to get hurt, so he fires them and goes searching for young people he doesn’t care about. Cannon fodder, in other words. One aborted mission later, and they’re all captured by the bad guys and have to be rescued. So much for that plan, Barney. This idea isn’t horribly annoying (although the new generation Expendables are pretty insufferable characters) but it consumes a huge amount of footage in the middle of the picture and deviates from one of the main attractions of the series—the presence of veteran action-movie stars, recreating iconic roles. Nobody wants to see a film starring Kellan Lutz (I think The Legend of Hercules proved that) and Ronda Rousey, trust me.
Still, The Expendables 3 is still a hoot and a half for those of us who are old enough to remember the golden age of action-film stars (the Eighties). The production values are fine (face it, we now have to accept CGI explosions and muzzle-bursts and so forth, nobody does practical effects on this scale any more). The film was shot in Bulgaria (although set in Fake-Name-istan) and the final action sequence (which consumes almost a third of the running time, amazingly enough) takes place in what appears to be a deserted, derelict hotel-casino complex (with no explanation as to why it looks like it’s been through a war even before the Expendables get there—in fact, in some shots fires are still burning in the rubble, for whatever odd reason). This place looks great and provides a more than satisfactory playground for the opposing forces. The two previous action set-pieces are set in an unnamed African nation and Somalia, respectively, but this is merely a matter of throwing up some words on a screen, there’s no particular local colour involved.
The geo-political allusions in The Expendables 3 are deliberately vague and confusing, but mildly interesting. Barney Ross and the Expendables are free-lance mercenaries (but good mercenaries), in this instance employed by the CIA (represented by Harrison Ford) to capture ex-Expendable-turned-arms-dealer Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). They’re ordered to deliver him to the World Court in the Hague to stand trial for war crimes; the final confrontation has Stonebanks using the army of Fake-Name-istan as his personal bodyguards against the Expendables, which doesn’t say much for that (nonexistent) nation’s integrity. There’s also a scene in which Stonebanks negotiates with a sort-of Muslim terrorist about weapons, and the film opens with a sequence in which the Expendables rescue Doc (Wesley Snipes) from an African prison where he’s been locked up for attempting to assassinate a dictator, so the film tries to make it clear that the Expendables only kill evil people (oh, and their employees, who might not be evil—they might be legitimate members of their nation’s military, trying to defend their country—but we don’t know them so the hell with them).
Aside from the action sequences, which are competently shot and edited, the chief source of entertainment in The Expendables 3 comes from the cast, the characters they play, and the dialogue they’re given. It might be cruel to say this, but Stallone’s an actor in a movie and his physical appearance is relevant: he foregoes the moustache and goatee he sported in the first two entries, which is a mistake—his battered and aging face is, frankly, distracting. Still, he’s fine in his role. While we’re on the subject of appearance, a scruffy Arnold Schwarznegger looks like a homeless guy, but seems to be having fun (and gets not one but two dialogue shout-outs to his famous “Get to da choppa” line). Mel Gibson makes a satisfying villain: he’s smooth and smiling on the surface, but quickly turns petulant and dangerous when things go against him (I’d have liked to see him do the role wearing a beaver-puppet on one hand, but I guess that would’ve been too meta). Wesley Snipes, a new addition to the roster, gets a substantial amount of screen time, as does another new face, Antonio Banderas, and both are moderately amusing. Harrison “Grandpa” Ford has a more substantial role than I expected, and Kelsey Grammer is entertaining and congenial in his part (confined to the middle, “new generation” section). The other old Expendables—Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Jet Li—are fine.
The Junior Expendables are mostly bland and predictable. Ronda Rousey is the hot woman who kicks ass, Kellan Lutz the motorcycle-riding rebel, Glen Powell the skinny computer nerd, Victor Ortiz the “weapons expert.” Rousey and Lutz get the most attention, but none of these people are that interesting (alright, Rousey does at least break up the all-male membership—and then has to endure a certain amount of sexual harassment and exploitation).
Overall, The Expendables 3 should satisfy people (like me) who enjoyed the first two films. It’s a big, dumb action film that knows it’s a big, dumb action film and isn’t ashamed of it.
Now we can sit back and start making our lists of people who should be in The Expendables 4. Steven Seagal, Kurt Russell, Pierce Brosnan, Adam West, Lorenzo Lamas, Sean Connery, Christopher Lambert, Richard Roundtree, Clint Eastwood….
"Honey, not that dress! It makes you look sort of…tough!” (Thrilling Romances 18, 1952). “Wait, did I say tough? I’m sorry, I meant…it makes you look like a slut!”
"This is what I’ve always wanted! To look glamourous and be the center of attraction!" And to wear a crown while other women wear dunce caps. (Love Letters 37, 1954).
Prepare to be shocked! I don’t think Guardians of the Galaxy is the greatest film ever made. ”What?! Blaspheming idiot! Burn him!” Yes, this opinion apparently puts me at odds with 93% of the world’s population, who have been running to the cinemas, throwing money at the cashiers and then flooding the Interwebs with their praise. Alright, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration—it doesn’t seem GotG fans are quite as serious as, for instance, Avatar-ds (some of whom view that film as a religious icon or a blueprint for a perfect world). Most fans limit their GotG gushing to “it’s SO funny, SO good, SO exciting, SO well done,” and SO on. Still…the reaction feels a little overboard to me. I mean, Guardians of the Galaxy is a lot of fun, but it didn’t change my life, any more than The Magnificent Seven, Star Wars, or Battle Beyond the Stars did (to not-so-randomly choose three other films).
Since anyone who hasn’t seen the film by now is probably actively avoiding it, this commentary will be short on rehashing the plot and moderately short on everything else. There isn’t a lot that can be said which hasn’t already been said about the film’s innate qualities, and almost no one would claim GotG is profound or full of social, political, or cultural messages to be analysed. It’s an unabashed space opera, in which five adventurers try to recover a powerful “Infinity Stone,” at first for personal (mostly financial) reasons, and later to save the universe from those who would misuse the stone’s power. The adventurers are moderately goofy Quill (who prefers to be known as “Star Lord”), mean, green space-assassin Gamora (not to be confused with Gamera), wise-cracking mutant raccoon Rocket, his tree-creature sidekick Groot, and vengeance-seeking, muscle-bound Drax.
One of the best things about Guardians of the Galaxy is that it features actual characters who have at least a modicum of depth. In addition to the aforementioned protagonist quintet, we’re also given a nasty villain Ronan (not a barbarian), Gamora’s evil sister Nebula (who has blue skin rather than green skin, perhaps she’s part Na’avi?), Quill’s drawling space-outlaw mentor Yondu, and a handful of subsidiary figures (among them John C. Reilly!) who, remarkably, also have flashes of personality.
Most of these are actors in makeup, but special mention should be made of Groot and Rocket, which are pure CGI creations. I suppose you could say mixing CGI characters and live-action performers in a film is old hat (the “Star Wars” prequels come to mind, e.g. Jar Jar Binks *shudder*), but in many previous cases CGI-creatures have been background, bit parts, or monstrous menaces rather than actual, sustained characters, or they were “walled off” in a separate universe from real actors (Avatar, for instance). Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy represent, if not something radically different, at the very least a quantum leap in the perceived reality of such characters. Groot and Rocket seem as “alive” as Quill, Drax, and Gamora.
I have gone on record elsewhere as (very mildly) questioning the employment of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper to voice the tree and the critter, respectively, since in the context of the film itself there is nothing they could do that anyone else (actor, voice actor, whatever) could not have done equally well. Diesel has one line (endlessly repeated), and Cooper seems to be doing his best Gilbert Gottfried impression (it isn’t a good Gilbert Gottfried impression, but it’s the best Cooper could do). But I was missing the point: Cooper and (especially) Diesel were chosen for their non-filmic participation in Guardians of the Galaxy. They were hired to promote the movie, to go on talk shows, to walk the red carpet at premieres, to allow their names to be used in advertising, and so on. It’s a marketing rather than an artistic decision, but the film itself doesn’t suffer for it (but neither is it the better for it), since the input of the two actors was extremely limited in any case.
One mildly annoying aspect of GotG is the “Marvel Universe” in which it is set. The desire to tie all of these films into a single storyline means the inclusion of obscure references and characters, but only when convenient. For example, the Avengers exist in their “group” films but are conspicuously absent in other movies featuring their individual components, even when circumstances would logically dictate their collective presence in combating such a dire threat. The appearance of Thanos and the Collector in Guardians of the Galaxy suggests this film is taking place in a more or less contemporary time period as the other Marvel movies featuring or referencing these characters, which just seems…off. GotG shouldn’t co-exist with Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, and so forth.
Another problem with the whole “Marvel Universe” gimmick is that it makes it nearly impossible to achieve true closure in any particular film. There must always be a link to a future movie, whether a direct sequel or an entry in another Marvel series. Oh, “but it’s all part of a grand tapestry, an epic tale of heroes and villains and multiple worlds!” Alright, you got me there. *rolls eyes*
In any event, Guardians of the Galaxy was a lot of fun, highly entertaining, well-made, witty (not quite as witty as it thinks it is, but…decently witty). Maybe a little long, but enough stuff happens to keep you awake. It’s a good movie, but just possibly not as great as the hyperbole. But then again, what is?
Faith and begorra, I do like an Irish film from time to time. Grabbers was a good one, as was The Guard, not so coincidentally directed by John Michael McDonagh, director of Calvary (2014). I did little research before seeing this—the combination of Ireland, McDonagh, Brendan Gleeson (and an excellent supporting cast, including Chris O’Dowd, Isaach De Bankolé, Kelly Reilly, and M. Emmet Walsh, to name the other internationally-known players) was enough to have me say “Shut up and take my money!” (to coin a phrase—at least I don’t think anyone has ever used that before, have they?).
My time and money were well-spent, indeed. Calvary is quite good, very layered and full of nuances to ponder, liberally spiked with some of the sharpest dialogue since The Guard, buoyed by fantastic performances top-to-bottom, and all of this occurring amidst breaktakingly lovely scenery. It’s not all beer and skittles, though, and (I’d wager) a substantial number of viewers will stumble out of the cinema looking rather shell-shocked by the film’s conclusion. You’ve been warned.
Father James is the parish priest in a small village (Easkey) in county Sligo, on Ireland’s northwest coast. He seems honestly concerned with the welfare of his flock, which includes butcher Jack, Jack’s unfaithful wife Veronica, African immigrant Simon, arrogant Michael Fitzgerald, atheist Dr. Frank, an aging American writer, pub owner Brendan, gay police inspector Stanton, feckless Milo, caustic rentboy Leo, precocious altar boy Michaél, and fussy fellow priest Father Leary, among others. Father James also receives a visit from his grown daughter Fiona (James became a priest after his wife’s death), who has emotional issues of her own (having recently attempted suicide over a failed love affair). Added to his daily burdens is one more challenge: in the confessional booth, someone—unknown to us until the film’s climax—says as a boy he was repeatedly abused by a Catholic priest and intends to murder Father James in protest (the actual offender is long dead).
Calvary isn’t structured as a whodunit (which was what I initially expected), since Father James knows the identity of the man who made the threat (but refuses to divulge this to his bishop, even after assured the inviolability of the confessional doesn’t apply in such cases). Instead, the film follows the priest as he goes about his daily duties in the week allotted to him by his would-be murderer to “get his affairs in order.” He counsels people (whether they ask for it or not), spends time with his daughter, visits a mass murderer in prison, consoles a French tourist whose husband has been mortally injured in an automobile accident: not everyone receives his attentions gratefully, but each of these vignettes is not only an individual jewel of characterisation and dialogue, they cumulatively provide a picture of Father James and of the residents of this small Irish town.
Father James, although a good man who honestly cares about people (even the man who threatens his life admits this, and says killing a good priest will make a greater impact than killing a bad one), is not without flaws. His own daughter says he essentially abandoned her after the death of his wife, plunging into the priesthood to assuage his grief; he’s also an alcoholic, although only after a series of tragedies and misfortunes does he fall off the wagon; and his patience with those who aren’t Church members (such as the pub owner, whose tale of financial woe is received with somewhat less than full attention) is questionable. However, in balance, Father James seems like an exemplary person, funny and caring. He has integrity, something he says the superficial Father Leary lacks. And yet, how much can he really do to improve the spiritual and temporal lives of those under his care (many of whom seem not to want or deserve his compassion)? The conclusion of Calvary suggests…very little, if we’re counting noses. But if one or two people were helped, then that should count for something…
While not a polemic on the Catholic Church (or organised religion in general), Calvary raises a number of questions, directly and indirectly. Father James says for many people “faith” is simply “fear of death,” and can’t survive strong blows. Throughout the course of the film, the priest himself is bludgeoned by a series of incidents—beginning with the sentence of death pronounced upon him in the confessional—which would challenge anyone’s faith in a just God (the film isn’t called Calvary for nothing). Although at one point he does go so far as to obtain a pistol (from the local policeman), Father James proves his faith isn’t merely “fear of death,” since he neither files an official complaint against the man who has threatened (nay, promised) to kill him, nor does he flee, even when given the opportunity. He stays to face the consequences—not even the consequences of his own acts, but of clerical misdeeds in the past.
Calvary isn’t really “about” sex abuse by priests, although this is the motivating factor that sets the plot in motion, and is discussed several times in the film, but it certainly helps make a distinction between the Church as an institution and the Church as represented by local priests (who are both good and bad). The Church protected pedophile priests, transferred them overseas, paid compensation, owns large amounts of property and has enormous financial resources, and—to some observers—appears to be more interested in protecting itself than carrying out its mission (one supposes) to spread the word of God and care for its members. The people Father James meets both admire him for his personal qualities and burden him with the baggage of the greater Church’s actions and inactions (for instance the publican complains that the Church cares nothing about the greedy and corrupt banking system which oppresses people, seizing their homes and businesses).
These are all things which make Calvary a film rich in post-viewing analysis possibilities: it’s not a simple story, despite taking place in a narrow locale, fixed time period (about a week), and with a relatively small cast. Each scene is like a mini-play, replete with splendid dialogue and a particular “theme” (or two), and while this might become tedious or episodic in a less fully-realised film, McDonagh doesn’t fall into this sort of narrative trap. Or not too much, anyway. Yes, it’s broken down into “days,” and each day consists of a series of interviews/confrontations/meetings between Father James and one or more people, but these are all so witty and engaging and thought-provoking that the time just races by. I’ve deliberately avoided going into any significant detail about the sub-plots or characters, because a great deal of pleasure to be had from watching Calvary is getting to know these people and their stories, at least to the extent McDonagh allows us to see into their lives. [I’ve also refrained from quoting much dialogue, even though there are scads of wonderful, quotable lines, but I’ll let you discover them for yourself. ]
Occasionally, films which have excellent scripts and acting may fall into the trap of allowing these elements to dominate, with a resulting static or stagey feel, but director McDonagh doesn’t let screenwriter McDonagh push him around: Calvary is smoothly put together, with superb cinematography and a fine music score (alternating between original, orchestral music and vintage pop songs). There’s no feel of “staginess” here.
The performances deserve considerable praise. I can’t think of a single poor one in the film, and even my previous statement about the “international” names in the cast shouldn’t be construed as denigrating those other actors whose names are unfamiliar to me. Brendan Gleeson shines, of course, but the people around him are utterly fine, bringing their all-too-human characters to life. Even those who, at first glance, seem broadly stereotyped, eventually reveal additional layers of humanity. To be sure, much of this is thanks to director-writer McDonagh, but even the finest dialogue can be undercut by routine acting and—conversely—can be enhanced by top-level performances.
As to the “Irishness” of Calvary, I’m not qualified to judge. Could the same story and characters be translated to another culture? Maybe, although some commenters indicate there are distinctly “Irish” underpinnings visible. If so, then that’s an added bonus for Irish-savvy viewers. For the rest of us, the setting, the accents, the history provide a distinctive flavour that’s unmistakeably Irish, but the film’s theme, drama, humanity are universal.
Calvary is not an unmitigated pleasure to watch—it’s sad at times and, as noted earlier, has a powerful conclusion which may not be palatable to all tastes. But there are many fine, amusing moments, and the dramatic scenes are masterful. In balance, this is excellent, and I recommend it highly.
"Movies, movies, movies! I’m tired of them! And this job—and you too!” Whoa there, young lady—you can diss your job and you can diss me, but don’t ever diss movies! (Pictorial Love Stories 1952).
"I mustn’t let emotion rule my life! It will only lead to hideous boredom and failure!" (Love Letters 38, 1955). Seems rather counter-intuitive to me—wouldn’t a life with no emotion be more boring?
Like many people, I went into Lucy expecting a very different film than I subsequently saw. Instead of Super-Babe Kicks Gangster Butt, we got a combination of Her, Transcendence, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Tree of Life, with strong overtones of She Devil (not the 1989 comedy but the 1957 science-fiction film about a woman medically altered into a superior being —the hair-changing scene might have been a direct homage or a coincidence). I won’t say I didn’t like it at all, but I definitely didn’t think I’d be watching a damn, long-haired hippie “trip” movie.
Lucy, a “25-year-old” (*cough*) American “student” (*cough*) in Taipei, blunders into a drug-smuggling operation led by the sinister Mr. Jang. Before you can say “urban legend,” she has a plastic bag full of blue crystals surgically implanted into her abdomen and is about to be shuttled off to Paris to deliver the goods. What, DHL isn’t good enough? Unfortunately for most involved, the bag ruptures and Lucy becomes a super-woman thanks to the super-drug super-dose. However, despite what the trailer for the film might suggest, she doesn’t use the “powers and abilities far beyond those of normal women” to fight crime, or even avenge herself on her specific attackers. No, she just…evolves into God. Ooh, sorry, was that a spoiler?
Luc Besson, a veteran producer-director of numerous action-oriented films in his native France, also wrote the script for Lucy. Unfortunately, he starts off with the flawed conventional wisdom that “human beings only use 10% of their brain capacity,” a concept which has been rather thoroughly debunked. Throughout the movie, Lucy’s mind-utilisation level is periodically displayed on-screen, topping out at 100% at the climax. She did it! Take that, you stupid dolphins! (Cited as creatures which use 20% of their brain) Using this out-dated idea was a minor misstep (although perhaps most people still believe it’s true)—Besson could have easily just written that the drug increases Lucy’s intelligence 100 times, with the same results. In Besson’s favour—at least theoretically—is his decision to take a sharp left turn and avoid the super-woman crime-fighter path, instead venturing into philosophical science-fiction territory. It doesn’t work, entirely, but he tried something different, so points awarded for that.
Besson’s directorial style in Lucy is worth examining, as he throws in bits and pieces of almost everything. Early in the movie, he gives us “Soviet montage,” intercutting scenes of Lucy at the mercy of the Jang Gang with footage of leopards stalking and killing a helpless gazelle. These wildlife scenes are completely non-diegetic (i.e., they’re not showing on a television monitor in the hotel lobby or something)—they’re symbolic. Does anyone do this anymore? Has anyone seriously done it since the 1920s? More style points for the French guy! The aforementioned “brain meter” is another example of non-diegetic imagery: when “40%” shows on the screen, we aren’t reading an actual machine display of Lucy’s mental capacity, it’s a number inserted there by the filmmaker for the audience, i.e. it’s not part of the film’s reality. Aside from the ubiquitous time/place labels (“New York City, 15 August, 10:00am,” etc.), you don’t see such things very much anymore in the cinema, if you ever did.
The finale is filled with wacky time-traveling and special effects scenes but is, formally-speaking, more conventional filmmaking. We understand what’s going on, and the various images (stock footage and newly-created, from the Wild West to prehistoric times to CGI black goo) are placed in context (Lucy is experiencing the history of the world, or something, apropos of an earlier comment about time being the only constant), unlike the earlier leopard-gazelle shots, for instance.
Besson mixes Matrix-like action with realistic action, but again, this is easily assimilated by audiences. However, this action brings up some mildly annoying aspects of the script. The Jang Gang doesn’t simply cut its losses when Lucy escapes their clutches (she also rats out the other drug mules with bellies full of the blue drug), they go all the way from Taiwan to Paris and attack the location where Lucy is explaining The Facts of Life to a bunch of scientists (including Morgan Freeman because of course). Mr. Jang himself goes there—he’s a hands-on kind of gangster—trying to recover four small packages of the drug? Write it off, dude. I suppose Besson said to himself, “Got to have some action scenes for the trailer, so let’s have Taiwanese criminals shooting at French cops!”
The blue drug itself becomes a MacGuffin: Lucy, for whatever reason, needs more of it (she starts to melt or evaporate or something when it runs out) and rather than use her super-brain to synthesize more of it in a lab, she insists that her fellow drug mules be nabbed so the plastic bags can be retrieved from their innards. This seems once again to be a script decision made more for convenience than logic, but hey, I’ve seen worse examples.
Lucy seems to want to be a film about ideas rather than action, but—beginning with the “we don’t use 100% of our brain” foundation—these ideas are often muddled and confusing. I hope it’s not that I’m too dumb to understand (perhaps I’m only using 9% of my brain), but I don’t think so. Professor Norman (Freeman) makes a speech early in the movie (to a class? A conference? The audience seems to be oddly mixed, but their dumb questions make it appear to be a university lecture) which is loaded with stock footage of animals, nature, people, diagrams, and boils down to…something like “a cell in a hostile environment seeks to survive, a cell in a friendly environment seeks to reproduce.” Yeah, well, alright. Not sure what the relevance is to Lucy’s super-brain, though. I also can’t say I found the conclusion profound or surprising or awesome, although conversely I didn’t feel angry or deceived. It is what it is.
Scarlett Johansson does a decent job as the cerebral She-Hulk, and Morgan Freeman could essay this sort of role in his sleep. In fact, the film is almost entirely carried by Johansson, with Freeman and the rest of the cast (international players mostly unknown to us Yanks) relegated to minor supporting roles in which they stand around and either gawk at Lucy or try to kill her.
There are a few intentionally funny moments, such as when Mr. Jang orders Lucy to open a “perfectly safe” briefcase, after he and all of his men discreetly go into another room! Lucy’s scene with her clueless roommate is also amusing. The production values are satisfactory, although a significant portion of the film is stock footage, and the rest takes place mostly in anodyne office buildings (Taipei and Paris are differentiated, but only marginally).
Overall, Lucy deserves credit for taking the road less travelled. I enjoyed it more as a formal exercise than as pure entertainment (although at 90 minutes or so, it moves along briskly). However, I still wonder…what happened to Ricky, Fred, and Ethel?
[P.S.—I also saw Deliver Us From Evil (2014) but this film was so forgettable that I couldn’t think of anything to write about it. It wasn’t horrible, but it didn’t even merit a review.]