Action

Hercules (Brett Ratner, USA, 2014)

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What is the point of this Hercules movie? I suppose it offers scope for action, spectacle and lots of special effects. But special effects are no longer sufficient to make spectacle spectacular: in the first five minutes of this film, as we’re giving the back-story, we’re shown mythological beings, places and Gods that in a 1960s movie would each have constituted a thrilling climax but here seem rather a yawn: snakes coming out of Hera’s eyes, multi-headed water monsters; it’s like most of the twelve labours of Hercules are depicted in the introduction of the film and, whilst one finds them difficult to improve upon, one also remains unengaged.

This version of Hercules is based on the First Limited Edition Radical comics re-working of the story, The Thracian Wars. What we’re introduced to here is a human-scale Hercules who with a band of marauders pretends to have the power ascribed to him in order to help other soldiers find the strength they think they lack inside themselves, which is eventually what happens to Hercules in the rest of the film. The plot revolves around two narrative lines: as background we’re told that Hercules’ family is killed by a pack of wolves whilst he’s asleep and there’s some suspicion that he did it himself; in the forefront of the story a Princess convinces Hercules’  to help her father protect his kingdom; he outfits and trains the Thracian army and then has to deal with the consequences. Neither of these plot-lines is what it seems and the resolution to both dovetails nicely at the end.

The film seems bloodless to me. Part of the problem is Dwayne Johnson, who usually exudes warmth and humour; here he just seems a big hulking blank. His being surrounded by British actors who wring laughs and garner effects from the meager materials they’re given to work with (Ian McShane does wonders but Joseph Fiennes and John Hurt also deserve credit) does not help his case; neither I suppose does his being given little to express (strength and stoicism interspersed with pain and loss) whilst being given much to do: he’s basically required to carry the whole film on the basis of his body and what he can do with it. It’s a two-note performance and he never makes us care what happens to Hercules though it is also true that we’ve rarely cared much what happens to Hercules in the past as we always know he’ll win. This film tries to inject the possibility of a different outcome but does not succeed; one just ends up staring at Johnson and his big hulking biceps with the huge popping veins and instead of being wrapped up in a story and feeling that there’s something at stake in it, something meaningful to oneself, one’s eyes begin to wander and one starts  to notice that his veins have slight pops and then one asks  whether what one’s seeing is scar tissue from track marks and so on. The story doesn’t grip.

The actors sometimes do. I was quite taken with McShane as noted above but also with Joseph Fiennes who it now seems inconceivable was until so recently thought of as a leading man: here his form is meltingly crooked; his face first that of a mindless saint, then later something reptilian and deadly; throughout he reminds one of a leering El Greco figure. John Hurt is good too but we’ve seen him do this before and it lacks excitement. Rufus Sewell is fine and looks exceedingly handsome. The women are not given much to do except look pretty which they do. But in the middle of these bursts of pleasure there’s Dwayne Johnson, not particularly handsome, not particularly sexy and not at all exciting.

The special effects are excellent; the fictional world is well-visualised; the 3-D so good one can almost touch the spears jutting out at the audience; it’s even hard to fault (much) the action scenes. However, how does this character of Hercules relate to us? What is he fighting for that can act as a metaphor and imaginary resolution to our own struggles? Why should we care that he win? The film offers no answers to these fundamental questions; and without answers the film feels a ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

 

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay, USA, 2014)

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I have now seen Transformers: Age of Extinction which I find crude, ugly in spirit, a kind of barbarism in culture. In keeping with the rest, the ‘girl’ screamed a lot. The only thing barely human is Mark Wahlberg. The rests seem like an illustration of The Dialectic of Enlightenment: all that science, all that knowledge, all that artistry, marvellous shots; all now directed at destruction, and of ideals too not just of things

 

I went to see it hoping to understand why the franchise remains so popular. I do see that not all expensive movies that make a great big noise and that have shooting flames as a background to people leaping over things are alike; and some of them can be quite beautiful (though of this type of film, I’ve only liked Edge of Darkness so far this year). This is neither beautiful nor did I get any insight into what audiences are getting from it. Plus I mistrust criticism in the press to such an extent (and with excellent reasons) that I think I should check these things for myself and have my own views, which I now do. That’s what I expected and got from seeing the latest Transformers I suppose.

 

Another reason I go is because when I was young I remember critics saying those Schwarzenegger and other action/spectacle films of the 80s were the way I now see the Transformer films and I think some of the Schwarzenegger films are some of the great masterpieces of the cinema so I keep thinking maybe I’m missing something:

Terminator, Total Recall etc. are now recognised as classics of the genre (and this applies to the Robocop, Aliens, Batman etc. as well); so I’m just curious to see if younger people have reasons for loving these films that I’m not getting (I think most people would now agree with me about the aforementioned Schwarzenegger and so on; and I think the older people who dismissed them in the 80s just didn’t bother to look, or look carefully, it was partly not seeing, partly not knowing how to see). So I go to these to find out if I need to learn a new or different way of seeing or whether there’s simply not much to see beyond what I already do.

 

What I do see is a chasing of the Chinese market, product placement trying to sell us things, sexism, all the crash and bang and explosions and metal twisting, a militarist, gun-loving play on destruction: thousand of buildings get destroyed, loads of people die, nobody cares. I thought this of a show the Black Eyed peas did in the middle of the Super Bowl a few years ago: all military outfits, regimented movement, thousands of dancers, like soulless robots out for the kill; and one begins to see that these are signs of empire in decline; all the filmmakers cannibalise Arthurian legends without understanding what was at stake in them. The Transfomers  talk of freedom without taking into account everything they’re destroying to achieve it. It’s like the collective, the common good, a sense of common humanity and individual rights have no place in this vision of the world.

 

 

The movie is making money and that is receiving substantial coverage. But there are more important things than money. If what movies say and how they make us feel don’t matter, then movies don’t matter; and if movies do matter, we should care more; and if movies matter as much as I think they do, the filmmakers should be ashamed to put such shit out into the universe. Hardened whores have more of a conscience than is evident in this type of cynical filmmaking.

 

 

José Arroyo

The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Marc Webb, USA, 2014)

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The areal sequences at the beginning are thrilling. Sally Field is the best Aunt May ever, her feelings so close to the surface that you just want to give her a hug and let her know that she really has  been a good Mom to Peter and that her world will end up alright; her scenes with Peter Parker are to me the best in the film. Andrew Garfield is a dilemma: on the one hand, he seems perfectly cast; on the other, all that neediness, couched in virtue, and spoken slowly, with each emotion separated from another by a pause in the dialogue and a shift of the head, ends up seeming rather twee and more than a bit tiresome. I liked Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon very much but then the actor and what an actor can bring to a role seems so effaced by the CGI when he becomes Electro that they could have gotten anyone to voice that ‘animation’. Emma Stone is rather perfect as Gwen and she and Garfield have a definite chemistry though one that could have been directed with more wit: the earnestness drags everything down. The plot is serviceable and Dane DeHaan is brilliant casting as the Green Goblin, he brings something jagged, excessive, dangerous, diseased; he spikes the story with much needed and sour malevolence. It’s all enjoyable but a bit underwhelming and makes one ask at what point special effects detract rather than enhance a production? Whatever that point is, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has reached it.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Robocop (José Padilha, USA, 2014)

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The Robocop remake is a mixed bag. I think Joel Kinnaman is a brand new star. In the original, Paul Weller seemed a little robotic and inhuman even before he became a cyborg. Here, Kinneman runs the whole gamut from romantic longing to mechanical catatonia but lets the audience into every aspect of it. The rest of the cast is a treat too. I’ve not seen Michael Keaton better since Beetlejuice. He’s lithe, charismatic and oozes the kind of menacing and sleazy charm that can bribe politicians with one hand and pick your pocket with the other. He’s like a Mafia Don of robocops but one who’ll bring out the jazz hands if needed to seal the sale. His scenes with Gary Oldman — as a scientist emollient to the point of weakness and ambitious past the point of ethics — have a real snap.

Samuel L. Jackson, hair high, almost but not quite straightened  and set with enough hairspray to stop any onslaught is a delight as a manipulative Fox-style news presenter: reasonable in a speaking-from-the-pulpit kind of way when setting out a case, impatient when he’s not, and bombastic when speaking directly to the audience. It was lovely to see Jennifer Ehle as well wearing clothes as dark as her morals and with elegant features arranged into a poker face until called to action. I also liked Abbie Cornish as Murphy’s wife though the spectre of Nancy Allen – curvy, saucy, crisp and acid – like biting into a tart apple —  is bound to haunt anything ever connected with her.

The film is set in 2028; in a Detroit that seems prosperously reconstructed but still crime-ridden and corrupt;  thus is license afforded to critique present-day America. But Robocop doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: corporations rule above governments unimpeded by checks and balances; we live in a surveillance culture that surveys and manipulates the weak and powerless; the media is brutally manipulative and mendacious; life is cheap. The original told us all of that and with a lot more wit, in a setting that seemed more spectacular, and with dialogue that was spare but with enough cutting lines to pack a punch: they relied on irony, conveyed satire, and earned belly-laughs from the audience – who can forget ‘you’re fired!’?

This Robocop doesn’t really overcome the failings that plague cinema in the digital age: the image still seems too thin to me, Padilha hasn’t learned how to make action exciting, lots of people get killed but there’s nothing at stake in their death – or indeed in Alex Murphy/Robocop avoiding his own — and the narrative still hasn’t figured out how to make use of all of story-telling possibilities new technology both diegetically and extra-diegetically make possible. I think what’s really missing is thought on how the new possibilities of dealing with time and the new challenges posed by changing standards of what is believable can result in different ways of communicating meanings and conveying pleasures.

If one could stop thinking about the original however, the film is very enjoyable and worth seeing for the actors alone.

José Arroyo

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, USA, 2013)

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Thor: The Dark World is much better than Thor. Visually, it’s a fan-boy’s delight, with the comic-book world a dream cinematic rendering. The filmmakers have succeeded in creating a believable world that is nonetheless not too far removed from the three-strip colour comic of adolescent memory. The CGI works beautifully for this type of superhero film as, even when its detectable, it only reinforces the ‘illustrated’ dimension of the comic-book world that is being created for us.

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The look of the film, surely the most beautiful and imaginative production design of the year, exceeds expectations. Thor’s world is a wonderful intersection of Gothic Viking imagery, a knowable and iconic London, and that which its sci-fi/ fantasy setting makes permissible (super-powers, the aligning of dimensions, magic). One comes out of the film with an appreciation of the brilliance of its imagery: Odin’s throne-room, Frigga’s funeral, Loki’s prison, each is recognisably what one expects, yet better composed and executed than one dared imagine.

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There are also fantastic set-pieces that do make one gawp: the initial battle sequence, Malekith’s entrance into Asgard, the aerial fight as Thor and Jane Foster try to escape it, the magnificent way Thor calls for his hammer in the final fight. I found all of this viscerally exciting and visually thrilling. But if the whole look of the film is spectacular, the actors who people that world and bring these characters to life are also deserving of praise.

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Chris Hemsworth is clearly born to that part; with his hair, his colouring and his musculature, it’s hard to think of anyone else in the role. But then there’s also Tom Hiddlestone with his wonderfully theatrical performance of Loki, and the way Anthony Hopkins as Odin creates effects just by the way he enunciates the final consonants in key words; and Christopher Eccleston unrecognizable but also vocally superb as Malekeith, and the way Idris Elba’s face is used almost sculpturally to create a  superb visually iconic myth of Heimdall — note how the yellow of his eyes is co-ordinated with his armour and helmet makes for very memorable close-ups — but one which also creates the illusion of three-dimensions. Aside from these, there’s also Kat Dennings and Chris O’Dowd for comic relief (which I found tired but which I attribute to my age as the younger audience seemed to lap it up) and Natalie Portman, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgaard. It’s an extraordinary all-star cast.

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The particulars of the story are sometimes hard to follow and I’m not sure if the story is as tightly plotted as one would have wished. However, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t much matter here. There other pleasures that more than compensated: the self-referential cameo by Chris Evans as Captain America, the jokey way the portals between dimensions is introduced, the appearance of Chris O’Dowd and other minor aspects of the film are delightful. But the main thing is how Thor: The Dark World looks true to the original yet newly striking, how the film moves beautifully and how it plays so well; and with some exciting action and a few laughs thrown in for good measure. Whiners may quibble; but it’s one to see again, preferably on IMAX.

José Arroyo

Rush (Ron Howard, USA, 2013)

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The film begins almost like a Bond film, Thunderball to be precise: race car driver James Hunt ( Chris Hemsworth) comes into the hospital after being thrashed by an aggrieved cuckold and, before the blood has been cleared from his face,  he’s got his clothes off and he’s got the nurse begging him to do to her what landed him in the hospital in the first place. It’s a playful, cheeky scene where Hunt/Hemsworth, or more precisely that extraordinary body of his,  is positioned by the camera as the nurse’s object of desire whilst the narrative itself positions Hunt/Hemsworth as subject and locus of audience  identification, however aspirational.

Most of the film is set in the 1976 Formula One season and focuses on the competition between Hunt and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) to win the  Formula 1 World Championship. Hunt is handsome, charismatic, impulsive; catnip to women but a real man’s man. Hunt loves the romance of the race, of putting his life on the line purely for the glory and because the adrenaline  cranks up his sex life and makes him feel alive.. Lauda is plain (he’s called ‘rat-face’ in the movie), a loner, careful, methodical. He’s in it because racing is what he sees himself being most successful at; he plays the odds but systematically; he’s warned not to follow Hunt in the sack as he’s told no one can compete but such warnings are wasted as Lauda is really more interested in a home life. The film also shows us that they have more in common than they think; not only their background or talent or the type of women they are attracted to, but the competitiveness and the way each spurs the other on.

In the film’s terms what’s at stake in the contest is symbolized by who will win it. Will it be business or will it be romance? Is it ‘Knights in Shining Armour’ or nuts, bolts and numbers? It’s a neck-and-neck race that does credit to each whilst underlining the necessary interconnection  of both. Even the two very good central performances have a ying/yang dimension: Hemsworth’s star is the one that shines brightest but it is Brühl’s performance that earns our admiration and will undoubtedly get the honours.

The film has a wonderful, distinctive look: slightly grainy, over-saturated with some carefully composed images (some of people sitting on signs) and shots that are thrilling to see almost on their own (e.g. some shots filmed through the inside of a helmet with the visor being drilled on the outside and the actors eye occupying most of one side of the frame).  I initially suspected that it was done that way so as to be able to mix actual footage from the original races into the narrative and, whilst I can’t vouch for that, the effect is to make us think that it could have been. The film evokes the rush, the speed, the fumes and the danger of that time where technological developments in the cars had dangerously begun to overtake the safety mechanisms of the track at the cost, sometimes mortal, of twenty percent of the drivers each year.

Rush is very glamorous. The clothes look wonderful both on the men and particularly on those sleek, long legged women that could have come out of a Roxy Music album from the period (the soundtrack features Jimmy Cliff, Bowie and many other treats). The clothes look different than what I remember people wearing but exactly as the magazines and movies of the period made us wish we could look like, which I suppose is always the gap between street clothes and high-end fashion or,  perhaps more accurately, the gap between how we do in fact end up looking and the promise of how we could, in the best of all worlds and with the very best of budgets, possibly look; Alexandra Maria Lara and especially Olivia Cole fulfil anyone’s dreams and look sublime.

The film works both as a serious drama and also as a sexy action film. The race is a thrilling photo finish in which what’s at stake is not only the win but also a romantic ideal and a set of values. It is slightly marred by an overly sentimental ending. It wouldn’t be a Ron Howard film without at least a small dose of saccharine; but the rest of the film wouldn’t be as good without Ron Howard’s tremendous skill and guiding intelligence either. It’s the kind of movie that used to be made by the  big studios, though they would have considered themselves lucky to produce one of this quality more than once a year. Now, according to the September 13th issue of The Hollywood Reporter, it’s a film that even Ron Howard had to make independently because the big studios wouldn’t touch a mid-budget spectacular chase movie that’s fundamentally character-driven. It’s their loss and, at least in this instance, our gain. Rush is a film to see and experience, and maybe even more than once.

****

It’s been mooted in the internet that American distributors don’t have high expectations for Rush because it’s about Formula 1 racing rather than NASCAR and because it’s about the rivalry between an Englishman and a German (the implicit assumption being that Americans have no interest in anything that doesn’t directly concern them); another view, mine, is that if they can’t drum up business for a sexy, glamorous movie featuring a hot young star  (Chris Hemsworth) coming off a roll of hits (ThorThe AvengersSnow White and the HuntsmanCabin in the Woods); a movie that is choc-a-bloc with car chases as exciting as anything in Fast and Furious films, they should all be fired.

José Arroyo

Días de Gracia/Days of Grace or a Note on the Process of Writing on Film (Everardo Gout, Mexico, 2011)

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I find the process of writing in itself an interesting guide as to how I value a film. In the last year, I’ve loved Mud, Candelabra, and The Bling Ring so much that I’ve seen them half a dozen times each but still haven’t managed to write anything on them but notes to myself: I’m paralysed with appreciation; I tell myself I need to wait for the DVD release to look at films more closely, verify my opinions, discover more of their mysteries, and find the language with which to begin to account for them. And so the process gets deferred.

Other times my need to write on a film over-rides almost everything else. In the last few days I’ve been going to lots of cultural events; Alain Bennet’s People at the Birmingham Rep, Shakespeare at Stratford, David Byrne in concert, other movies; and in spite of finding them all rewarding in their own ways, I found my mind returning, almost against my will, to focus on Satyajit Ray’s The Big City. I needed to write something.

Other films feel like a waste of time to see, encourage no reflection, and writing on them doesn’t even cross my mind. Others yet, like Days of Grace, I initially thought of just putting aside as a not-too-pleasant experience but then found myself returning to at odd moments as if my unconscious was telling me something my conscious reason didn’t quite grasp.

My first impression of Days of Grace was of an interesting, almost virtuoso, if rather bewildering and somewhat unpleasant example of types of camera movement, colour and editing now made possible by new technologies. Different parts of the film are shot in different formats: 8, 16 and 35 mm; and colour is used differently in different parts of the movie; but the oversaturation it does make use of throughout a great deal of the film has only been seen in cinema relatively recently and is probably due to computerized colour grading. The movement of the camera is relentless and dizzying; simultaneously exciting and irritating; it whizzes overhead in speedy helicopter shots over Mexico City, shakes wildly as it follows characters so you almost can’t see what’s going on. The editing must have been done digitally as objects appear and disappear from walls even as the camera pans across it and would have been a very expensive special effect in another era. And I thought there was something interesting and new about a steady but clearly mechanical (non-smooth) type of tracking shot that I don’t remember seeing before.

After I decided not to write on it (why write something negative on something struggling to find an audience as is?) my mind kept returning to the phrase of Gabriel García Marquez that acts as a pre-amble to the film: ‘La vida no es lo que uno vivío, sino lo que recuerda, y cómo lo recuerda para contarla/ Life is not what one lived but what one remembers and how one remembers to tell it’.  So what is life according to Days of Grace, what does the film want us to remember, and how does it tell its story?

These questions were part of the problem I had with the Day of Grace because I wasn’t sure I followed it properly; and I was not alone. Phillip French writing in The Observer notes that the story ‘is difficult, at times almost impossible, to follow. At least first time around.’

The film is clearly a ‘state of the nation film’ with some similarities to Amores Perros and City of God. It is set during three World Cups, 2002, 2006 and 2010 because it’s been observed that, ‘every four years, for 30 days, crime rates go down by 30% because of the World Cup’. It tells three interconnected stories, that of a cop, a kidnap victim, and a family; there are even three versions of ‘Summertime’ so that the film becomes interconnected even on an aural level (Janis Joplin and Nina Simone I recognized: I had to search the credits to find the last which turns out to be by Scarlett Johansson). Each of these stories involves the other key phrase repeated throughout the film, something like ‘in Mexico, every single day is a fight for your life’. So what the film remembers and what it tells is this struggle; and it is significant that the only person who leaves the film’s carnage alive is a young boy who we see first as a child delinquent (Doroteo), then as an apprentice kidnapper (called Iguana and played by Kristyan Ferrer) and in the last scene of the film as a boxer, still fighting for his life, not yet knocked off like the others in the film. But for how long?

Everardo Gout, whose debut feature this is, has called Days of Grace, ‘A love letter to my country…the film comes out of my great love for the country, out of sadness and out of fear at the violence.’ In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw read this ‘love letter’ as a ‘confident well made film that ends up in a blind alley of cynicism’. I do understand where both are coming from. Part of the reason my mind kept returning to the film was because it jived with my experience of Mexico when I last visited: those who could afford to lived in gated communities with their own security firms; the city police, the District police and the national police fought with each other and also against the various gangs that were often more powerful than they; kidnapping was so rife they had a term for it ‘kindnap expres’, a short-cut to ready money to which everyone who had even a minimal paycheck and a family was vulnerable to. Mexico felt like a failed State and indeed the first time I venture unescorted, it was the police I fell victim to rather than a gangster: the police were the gangsters. The film too makes it clear that there is a thin divide between cops and gangsters in Mexico. As one of the characters says in an analogy with the World Cup, ‘we’re not arbiters, we’re players’.

What to Bradshaw is cynicism, a lack of faith and hope in people and institutions, is to Gout realism, sad and fearful but of what is not of what it once was or what the society could be again. It’s a love letter because there’s Lupe, the hero who is not only a cop, but one who is linked to Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary saint and arguably a founding father of Twentieth Century Mexican ideals. In the face of Tenoch Huerta, and in his performance, in the gesture of kissing of the figure of Zapata and the bullet he once held, one sees a Utopian ideal of that daily fight not only to survive but to make things better, to make things good; and in that ideal lies Gout’s love letter.

What my mind kept turning to, what made me want to find out a little more about the film and to write something after my initial decision not to were three things a) that I couldn’t understand the story fully: was the film too fast or was I too slow? I haven’t figured out the answer to that one yet. B) The violence: brutal, relentless, stylish. This is bound to become a cult film. And c) Tenoch Huerta’s open and suffering face in his futile attempt to make things better. I also felt that the film was akin to the work of a brilliant writer who was so enraptured by his limitless ability with the medium that he ended up writing astonishing passages but forgot what he was writing about or whom he was writing to; or put another way, Days of Grace is the work of a virtuoso director. That is where my writing on the film led me to think contra my experience of watching it.

José Arroyo

Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, USA, 2013)

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In Elysium, rich people have extracted everything they can from earth and made it so dirty, dangerous, ugly and poor in the process that they refuse to live in it. They’ve created a satellite colony, Elysium, where only they can live. It’s like Earth is East LA and Elysium is a super-rich gated community like Beverly Hills. We are introduced to our protagonist Max de Costa (Matt Damon) as a boy, an orphan brought up by nuns in a slum along with Frey (Alice Braga). He’s very intelligent but he’s always in trouble with the law.  His dream is to get to Elysium. As the film gets underway in 2154, he’s on probation, a sentence which gets extended because, in his time like in ours, a poor man can’t even get sarcastic with a law enforcer without paying for it, even if the officer is a machine.

Max has got a shit job, no guaranteed shifts, and he’s made to do hazardous work at the risk of getting fired. As a result, he gets radiation poisoning; but the machines that can cure everything are only available to the 1% living in Elysium. Frey, his childhood companion and not-quite-requited love, is now a nurse. She has a daughter with leukemia who also needs urgent access to those cure-all machines. Max has five days to live, five days to act and try and save himself and the child of his childhood love.

At the same time, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the Secretary of Defense for Elysium is planning a re-boot of the whole system to stage a coup and accede to total power. Max allows himself to be turned into a cyborg so that a hard drive can be fitted into his brain and an exoskeleton grafted onto his body to give himself enough strength to fight for his life.  Can Max steal this programme, reboot the system so that everyone on earth gets re-enfranchised as citizens and get free healthcare for all, including himself and Frey’s daughter? That’s the film’s plot, a good one, and one in dialogue with key works in the genre: the novels of Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson; but also Lang’s Metropolis, the Robocop films, the Terminator Films, Total Recall, Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic.

Although the plot is serviceable, it’s badly structured. We expect Max’s nemesis to be Delacourt but Damon barely gets to exchange a line with Foster. There are three villains in this film: Delacourt, who is motivated by fascist ideals of strength and security at any cost: John Carlyle, the super-rich industrialist who invented and designed Elysium’s security system and who owns the company that manufactures police robots that Max works for and whose main motivation is mere money; and Kruger, a covert mercenary who Delacourt has on tap to do her dirty work whenever it suits her. Delacourt signifies power though it is illusory in that she relies on others to carry out her commands. Carlyle is rampant capitalism, and his function is to first show his disdain for people and then to have the knowledge that is the basis of his wealth taken from him by Max (William Fichtner gives a superb, very still, dry and funny performance). Max’s true enemy, the one he has to fight throughout the film so that he can achieve his goals, is really Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a covert mercenary, who represents brute and destructive chaos in the service of power.

If Carlyle is a mere plot point, Delacourt is bare symbol. The film could have lost most of her story-line without losing much; and the film is further imbalanced by having Jodie Foster play the character. It’s not that she’s bad, indeed I find her excellent; she doesn’t have much of a character to play with, any in fact; but she makes the most out of the little she’s got with minimal gestures and the kind of accent one imagines in white supremacists. It’s just that she’s Jodie Foster! Everyone under fifty has grown up with her. We know her as the tomboy in the Disney films, the underage prostitute in Taxi Driver, her great Tallullah in Bugsy Malone, the woman for whose attention John Hinckley shot Reagan, and from The Silence of the Lambs until Julia Roberts career picked up again after My Best Friend’s Wedding in 1997, the only female star in Hollywood who could carry a film on her own. When one sees a great actress and a legendary star top-billed in a movie one expects to see more than a cliché making a few phone calls to her minions. Further, I suspect that the nastier aspects of what Delacourt symbolises are drawing on those elements of Foster’s star persona that intersect with the audience’s knowledge of her as a lesbian; and to me, the film’s misuse of Foster feels like a betrayal.

Elysium has a problem in maintaining tone as well. The early child-hood scenes are sappy, and as is illustrated by Sharlto Copley’s performance as Krugor, the film wavers uncomfortably wildly between realism and melodrama. This extends to the whole film. For example, the dystopian world the film depicts is gritty and ‘realistic’. It could be any third-world metropolis (I understand Mexico DF was used a location), or even parts of the US today. The technology is futuristic but the buildings, workplace, lifestyles are all too recognizable. However, the people are not, or not quite, and it should be the other way around.

If who the characters are, what they feel and what they hope for are something we know and can identify with then the external world can be as odd and different as imagination can make it. But here, though the structure of the story is melodramatic, and the tone in which its told also at least touches on the melodramatic, the film itself doesn’t allow for the identification or provide the release essential to melodrama. We know what is at stake in Max’s quest but we’re not able to feel it with him. It seems that Hollywood cinema has given up on trying to make audiences cry and simply retired one of its greatest pleasures and a central element of its art over to television, much to its detriment.

Elysium is a liberal sci-fi film. Let’s not overestimate what that means, sci-fi has been one of the few genres in which Hollywood cinema has allowed any kind of political critique (Oblivion is but the most recent example). It’s as if it’s ok to offer social critique on film so long as it applies to the future and not to the now. But let’s not underestimate what that means either. The less integral American cinema is to American culture, the greater the critique allowed. However, this is as potent a demonstration of de-facto disenfranchisement and as clear an argument for universal health-care as I remember seeing.

Elysium, like the recent 2 Guns, is another example of how race is being re-signified in American cinema. Why is Max’s surname De Costa? Why are most of the supporting characters Latin American (not only Alice Braga but also Walter Moura; and Diego Luna brings a burst of sparkle every time he appears)? Why is there so much dialogue in Spanish (it sometimes feels close to a bilingual film). Why does the film side with those poor people trying to enter Elysium just the same way Hispanics try to cross into the US border from Mexico? It’s like Elysium is Versailles, the Hispanics are the sans-culottes, and the film is showing why storming Versailles and brining on the revolution is a good and necessary thing. That’s quite something in a big-budget American film.

Visually, Elysium is a masterpiece. The first few panoramic shots showing us the contrast between earth and Elysium are extraordinary, you can even see people moving in their lush gardens as the camera circles and moves through the Elysium satellite. There are also some shots of Jodie Foster seated in her control console that are breathtaking achievements in shot composition. Matt Damon’s transformation into a cyborg (indeed the whole design of his look for the film), a shot of a robot exploding in slow motion and the villain’s face being re-composed after its been blown off are also indelible visual moments. However, there is also too much hand-held camera throughout the film. I saw it in IMAX and the camera bopping up and down constantly on such a huge screen and in such detail was unpleasant and dizzying. However, that didn’t put me off seeing it twice; it was even more beautiful the second time around; and I suspect it’s a value, a very considerable one, only truly visible on a big screen. Don’t be put off by the reviews (perhaps including mine); it’s very much worth seeing.

José Arroyo

2 Guns (Baltasar Kormákur, USA, 2013)

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If film-going were still a simple leisure activity –easy, cheap, the kind of thing one did to while away a Saturday afternoon in between shopping; or as I did as a kid, the place you went to for a bit of fantasy and glamour whenever you felt like it — you’d walk in in the middle of the film and stay until the film re-started again and took you to where you came in; and then, if you liked it, you sat some more and saw it again — if film-going were still like that, rather than the expensive, troublesome, special event its become, then I’d recommend 2 Guns.

The film clearly set out to be an A-minus genre piece. You can imagine someone pitching the concept: a heist movie crossed with a buddy film but with a twist:  the crooks who pull the job, Bobby(Denzel Washington) and Stig (Mark Wahlberg) are really DEA and Navy, and the money they steal is not the Mexican mob’s but the CIA’s.

In 2 Guns no one is who they claim or who they seem to be –Deb (Paula Patton), that beautiful girl Bobby meant to like is double-crossing him with Stig’s prettier boss, Quince (James Marsden). In fact everyone will double-cross everyone. Each betrayal allows the plot a shoot-out, a car chase or both. At the end, the two stars will walk arm-in-arm into the sunset but not before one shoots the other in the leg, partly to even out something that happened earlier but also to eliminate any funny ideas people might have.

I experienced the film as an enjoyable trifle: as befits a comic-book adaptation, it has a handsome, mindfully sparse look; the compositions of a noir but the colour palette of a comic book influenced by noir (browns, blacks, grainy bright yellows); it has Denzel Washington, the most charismatic of contemporary stars (of the other contenders, Will Smith tries too hard — you’re frightened he’ll hip-hop onto your living room ceiling if he got even the slightest whiff it might please you; and there’s something oleaginous and slightly dishonest about George Clooney’s charm – like he’s trying to trick you into liking the he that he is not).

It also has Mark Wahlberg, looking like an inflated galumph; as if he were an ordinary Joe trying to get fit but instead getting fat on the wrong protein shakes;  but with those sad, knowing, little eyes of his telegraphing that he’s not as dumb as he sounds. His voice, gentle, low but thin, an expressive counterpoint to the power implied by his body, always hits the right note when he’s got a joke to put across.

Washington and Wahlberg, play off each other with rhythmic ease; they give and take on the lines, battle it out for the camera’s focus on the two-shots. You never get the sense they’re playing real people, they’re big stars trying to outdo each other and trying to entertain us; they’re both slightly past their prime physically which perhaps makes one even more aware of just how good they are and how rare their skill.

The film delivers on what the advertising promises. In fact it does better than that. Edward James Olmos is terrific as the Mexican gang-Lord: greying, measured, gravitas backed up by weaponry, and with principles, the only ones the film has on offer. Bill Patton is just as good, all southern charm laced with sadism. Lovely to see Fred Ward also, as the Admiral who plays by a set of rules different to Stig’s. And James Marsden seems to have found his calling as the bad guy. He’s the type of star who’s so good looking and so pleased with himself you always wish someone would smack him; when he plays the bad guy, somebody does! He should play bad guys more often.

As I was walking home after the movie, I thought, ‘it’s ok’; and then I began mulling on how interesting the film was ideologically; it criticizes all the institutions, CIA, DEA etc. It’s a corrupt world through and through; where the only relationships are instrumental, where people mean to love but end up betraying or marrying up and for money. The film’s message is clear: the only thing that matters is taking care of the guy next to you. Moreover, 2 Guns felt like the first of these interracial buddy films were race didn’t really seem to figure as an issue  (compare to the 48hr films) and I don’t think it’s only because Bobby is white in the original comic book.  Race is currently being re-signified in American cinema and this is a good example of how it’s happening. I haven’t quite worked through these ideological implications; I’m not even sure they’re worth working through; but by the time I’d got home the film seemed richer, more suggestive, at least worth a think.

And then, by the time I started writing this, I thought, people might not go to the pictures as they used to but maybe the way we consume films might not be that different: Pop the DVD in, see a bit of it, if you like it see it several times. And really, the real test is that unlike most films, some whom I initially thought more highly of, I would see 2 Guns again when it comes out on DVD: It looks good, moves well, the actions scenes are competent, and it delights with expertly exchanged banter, a few good jokes, and two stars showing each other and the audience why they’re stars. Moreover, the supporting cast is made-up of people who normally headline and are here at their best. Plus it seems to have interesting things to say. When did I get so picky?

2Guns_2ndShot_CVRJosé Arroyo

The Wolverine (James Mangold, USA, 2013)

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You gift filmmakers a fantastic imaginary world, characters that are mythic yet three-dimensional, wonderful actors who can play them; and you get…. The Wolverine? It doesn’t seem a fair exchange. The story is good if predictable but structured around dream sequences with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) that don’t quite work; the set-pieces are sometimes very imaginative (I love the tactile bed we see in the trailer) and there is a truly superb villain in The Viper (a magnificent Svetlana Khodchenkova). For fans of the comic book, the fact that the story is set in Japan, will also have special resonance (and the way Japan is designed for this film makes for a joyous setting). The film seems to have all the ingredients for a great film but everything seems slack, even the humour seems off-rhythm and badly timed, the punch-line arriving after the audience’s already got the joke.

It’s a proficient movie but I didn’t feel moved or thrilled; and the film never once made me feel part of a somewhat embittered community of the alienated and disaffected who shared higher morals and ideals than the world depicted, the way the various x-men comic books at their best did. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about declining audiences and the industry trying to figure out whether it’s changing ways of viewing, or marketing, or delivery platforms. But really they should look at the films; all the big-budget ones seem to be made by a transnational committee and by-the-book but also by-passing feeling altogether; and if films don’t engage with dreams, hopes, aspiration, conditions of existence or the way people think and feel, see and/or experience, what’s the point of them (other than to make one feel a feeder for some corporation’s bank-balance)? And I suppose that’s the problem with this film; it’s ok but so what? And that in itself is a condemnation of the present industry because these are great characters in a superb imaginary world that audiences have loved and identified with for decades and the filmmakers have been given a lot of money to turn it all into a movie. If ok but so what is the response you get, you didn’t deserve to get to make the movie.

José Arroyo

Oz, The Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, USA, 2013)

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The 3-D is piercing —  I literally shrank away from it (it was very effective though not pleasant). The colour is the brightest and happiest I have yet seen on digital. I adore seeing what Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis  can do, even with roles so unworthy of their talents and their art. However, James Franco is the one with the meaty role and he makes the most of it: nobody could have captured the shabby, gauche, two-bit conman, kind-of-ladies man but too honest and goofy to be a lady-killer, sweet-but-not-innocent shyster of a wizard as well as he. He’s just perfect. Michelle Williams does better than anyone could possibly hope with that role (though, unless the intended look was mumsy,  her make-up and costume people have  done her no favours here). I love the doll character and Zach Braff voices the monkey with warmth and humour. The last scenes with the smoke and the face are superb. I liked it much more than I expected to.

José Arroyo

Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders, USA, 2012)

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The story is what you’d expect but with maybe more of an accent on the magical. The film is visually dazzling, with dgi here used expressively to create a magical world, damply dark or sinister, or life-giving, unfolding whiteness. The scenes of the transformation of the forest, or indeed any transformation involving Charleze Therzon are astonishing. Therzon herself looks the part better than she acts it but gives a serviceable performance. Chris Hemsworth is rugged and gorgeous. Kristen Stewart has both a transparency and also a kind of awkwardness that is now an integral part of her star persona. She never seems at ease, is always awkward but somehow true. Here she’s astonishingly beautiful, a beauty made amazing because you initially don’t quite notice, it catches you by surprise in particular shots and then hits you as breathtaking. Girls will love her in armour at the end. There’s something that stops this film from quite working and yet I would like to see it again.

Directed by Rupert Sanders,  a first time director.

José Arroyo

Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, USA, 2008)

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It’s James McAvoy’s film. Angelina Jolie has only a small, supporting role, though she looks every inch the movie star throughout and you can’t help looking at anyone else when she’s on screen. What distinguishes this film is the visuals: mind-bending, space-bending curving distortions of geographical space and direction that I think are new in action; a kind of space-warping, slow-mo, high-speed demonstration that is just thrilling to watch. This technique is also evident in Timur Bekmamvetob’s other films such as Night Watch (Russia, 2004) and Day Watch (Russia, 2006) and might be what brought him to the attention of American producers. The rest of the story-telling in Wanted is crude, tending towards the grotesque and the emphatic, no subtlety whatsoever, a kind of filmmaking meant to be consumed in a distracted environment amongst lots of other, competing, media. Wanted doesn’t support too much attention but neither does it require it: the story is almost instantly forgettable. However, the action sequences are truly remarkable. Watching these dazzling sequences is what led me to the technically rougher but more textured, complex and better ‘Watch’ films. Good fun.

José Arroyo

Looper (Rian Johnson, USA, 2012)

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Visually disappointing but narratively enthralling film about a Looper, an executioner who kills people from the future in the present. Time travel doesn’t exist in the present but it does in the future, thus people from the future get shipped back to the film’s present, the looper shoots them as they appear, disposes of the body and gets paid. No one is looking for the bodies in the present and nobody can find them in the future. But who is disposing of these bodies and why? That’s what the rest of the story tries to tell in this dystopian futuristic thriller in which one can detect elements of The Omen (Richard Donner, USA, 1976) and The Fury (Brian de Palman, USA, 1978). The story lacks tension and feels a bit long but it does fascinate. The drugs, the want, the sense of a failed state with no law and order, with hungry people rummaging the countryside and those prairies full of rotting fields are a subtle critique of America now and, like many contemporary films, Looper deals with current anxieties by depicting, denouncing and somewhat resolving the most hateful aspects of this new Depression we’re living in, albeit tangentially. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a subtle imitation of a young Bruce Willis, it’s mostly the nose, but with a few mannerisms thrown in; then he shows what a truly brilliant actor he is because he can let go of the disguise; it’s not straightforward imitation. Emily Blunt disappoints; sadly, because she’s so sympathetic one wants her to be good. Looper is intelligent and enjoyable sci-fi thriller that offers well-executed action and also leaves audiences with an interesting set of ideas to think about and discuss.

José Arroyo

The Godfather, Part III (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1990)

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Sofia Coppola has a lovely ripe presence here but she’s too shy and not very good. Adolescence is an awkward time but awkwardness is the one thing she manages to convey — she makes for uncomfortable viewing and thus quite a bit of the film suffers by her presence. Talia Shire to me is as much a face of the 70s, as representative of that era, as bigger stars (The Godfather Films and the Rocky films ensure that). I love the way she grows into a Lucretia Borgia figure in this. I also love the relish Raf Vallone brings to his Machievellian churchman. Andy Garcia , whom I love to look at, is not good enough really (he suffers in comparison to James Caan. James Caan! That’s how insubstantial he is here). Yet, the film is somehow magnificent in spite of its relative inadequacies. It’s only not good in comparison to masterpieces; in comparison to what I saw in the cinema this week, it’s a masterpiece: it looks beautiful, has novelistic texture, it’s about character, has a view of life and a view of society that it articulates with grandeur. I love the helicopter shootout that wipes out a whole gang of mafiosi, and the opera scene at the end (clearly echoing the Baptism scene in the first film though not as good). Keaton has a lovely look in the film, teary, chic but somehow gemutleich and klutzy-chic.  Is the steps scene inspired Cagney’s death in The Roaring Twenties? I think that here Keaton outshines Pacino but to me it’s really Talia Shire’s movie, and Coppola’s and that of the gorgeous design that is characteristic of all the Godfather films. The montage of the three films at the end, an unnecessary, elegiac and  sentimental coda,  seems somehow unworthy of the trilogy.

 

José Arroyo

 

World War Z (Marc Foster, USA, 2013)

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It’s so much better than I expected, so intelligent and visually impressive that I almost had to remind myself that World War Z  isn’t quite good. The film is about zombies — that’s what finally got me to the cinema. They’re everywhere at the moment and I like them in almost all their variations: on TV in the wonderful The Walking Dead (created by Frank Darabont, USA, AMC, 2010-); as quasi-teen romantic horror played for laughs in Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, USA, 2013); in foreign films, even from Cuba, such as Juan of the Dead/ Juan de los Muertos (Alejandro Brugés, Cuba, 2011) and even in the most far-out variations such as The Happiness of the Katakuris [Takashi Miike, Japan, admittedly a while ago, 2001) — musical zombie films from Japan anyone? Just as interestingly, they’ve become a political symbol for the Chilean Student Movement, with masses of students protesting against the government dressed as zombies doing gigantic flash-mobs to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.

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This particular take on zombies is based on Max Brooks wonderful 2006 novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War but is very different to it. Brooks’ book has no central protagonist but is instead structured like Studs Terkel’s classic books on World Word II and the Depression such as Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. The influence is clear from the title of the books alone and Brooks’ novel is indeed structured as an oral history of the Zombie War, told by different survivors of it from different countries and from different walks of life. The idea is to evoke with panoramic sweep yet retain all the particularities; to not lose sight of the big picture but to also focus on people. This permits Brooks in his novel to allow for  allegory whilst also keeping a sharp eye on narrative and action. One can see why the book was so attractive to producers (though its natural form seems to be more as a basis for an HBO series than what is permissible in feature film form).

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Film buffs may be interested in knowing that Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. Zombie fanatics will already know about his also being the author of The Zombie Survival Guide. What is interesting to me about Brooks in relation to the film is that he’s also written for comic books such as The Extinction Parade and even new takes on established franchises such as his Hearts and Minds graphic novel in the G.I.Joe franchise. What interests me about Brooks’ work here, his curt no-nonsense noir dialogue, the political point-of-view necessary for allegory and critique, the brutal, corrupt world in which all is not yet hopeless, the superb marriage of story/action/dialogue evident in his work for comic books, is only as a measure of the extent to which it is absent in the movie of World War Z.

2013-07-01 20.11.09Marc Foster’s take on World War Z does make you glad that you are watching it in a cinema and does seem to provide what a smaller screen can’t quite, a travelogue of spectacular disasters in various, and variously exotic, parts of the world — those masses of zombies swarming, climbing on top of each other like ants jacked up on methamphetamines, jumping into cars and even planes- — sometimes in really thrilling areal shots that reveal a world unraveling — whilst being able to see every element of these composition of disaster in great detail. You can definitely see where the money went. (estimated cost is  $190 million after tax breaks).

It’s not boring either. The narrative has a melodramatic basis: Gerry Lane’s (Brad Pitt)  family is being sheltered only because of his skills; and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two girls are under threat not only from the zombies but from the authorities, as they are in an ‘essential-personnel-only’ facility. Their  presence in the shelter is conditional on Brad’s continuing existence and eventual success.

In ‘Brad’s War’, a very interesting cover story on the troubled production of the film that made the cover of the June issue of Vanity Fair, Laura M. Helson tells us ‘What the ending of World War Z needed was for its hero to be re-united with his wife and children’ According to Helson,  when screenwriter Damon Lindeloff was asked in to view a 72 minute rough- cut of the picture that didn’t work and to offer some possible solutions, he noted that, “Lane (Brad Pitt) has to ‘save the world’ to get back to his family,” said Lindelof, adding, “It is an emotional task.”

However, though the family is central to the film’s functioning as melodrama, World War Z never puts what family might really mean to the test:  What would have happened if his wife had been rendered a zombie and was on the verge of converting his child, what would he do? or, if both of his children where to be converted and he could only choose one?

The film doesn’t want to rock the boat too much. And because it doesn’t, it is never once as moving or as complex in terms of human feeling of survival, loss, and transformation as various episodes of AMC’s Walking Dead . The series tangled with really important questions (what is society? What is community? What is it to be human? What does it mean to love? What is morality? How does one live ethically in a chaotic world filled with disasters?) that this film, busy as it is with its pile-up of disasters, doesn’t even begin to broach.

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World War Z  has a nice central idea; that survival depends on movement and change; but if films don’t work emotionally, they simply don’t work, no matter how much they cost.  This particular film works in terms of immediate sensation rather than of depth or complexity of feeling; though here even the sensational elements succeed only up to a point: it’s only mildly scare, a little creepy, somewhat horrifying; it’s the kind of zombie film people who don’t like zombie films will enjoy, which I suppose is the kind of audience a film budgeted at World War Z’s level is aiming for.

There is no question that it is spectacular, and that it has some terrific set-pieces such as the zombies on a plane (which could be the basis for an entire, very exciting film). But overall, I found it much better than I had expected and then not as good as it had led me to hope. Pitt is effective and has a very good moment when his eyes well with emotion at the thought of never seeing his daughters again. But it’s almost the only time we get a hint of anything happening underneath his practical façade (contrast Pitt’s performance here to Andrew Lincoln’s in The Walking Dead). As an actor, Pitt is a little like World War Z is as a film: all externals, spectacular to look at, moves thrillingly, but with something unfathomable and likely to be blank under the surface.

…And yet, as David Denby so interestingly notes in his New Yorker review in the July1, 2013 issue, ”the movie…evokes  the hectic density of modern life; it stirs fears of plague and anarchy, and the feeling everything is constantly accelerating. At times, it has the tone and tempo of a panic…The zombies aren’t like us; they are us, just degraded a little’. That sense of the film being a refraction of who we think  we are; and  also a refraction of how the world we live in makes us feel, is part of what makes it so interesting; much more interesting than one initially thought.

José Arroyo

The Iceman (Ariel Vromen, USA, 2012)

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Littered with spoilers so do not read if you don’t want to know the ending.

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From the first ten minutes of The Iceman we know that Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is ‘in a lonely place’, that he’s got ‘a touch of evil, that he’s got ‘no way out’: that he’s ‘D.O.A.’ Perhaps only in the period of post-war noir has American cinema been bleaker or better than it is at the moment: Blue Valentine (2010), Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011), Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011), Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012), The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012), The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) , Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik 2012), Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012), Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012), to name but a few examples. Dystopian views now are not just limited to genres like science-fiction or horror but seem to have seeped right to the centre of the culture. However, although other films might have as bleak an outlook, none has a darker look than The Iceman.

 

 

Our Cultural Past as Mythos of a Fictional World

 

            The film spans the period of the early 60s to the early 80s but most of the action takes place in the 70s in Hoboken, New Jersey, where Frank Sinatra was born, and in the various boroughs of New York where he started his career. Atlantic City, in the middle of getting a gambling license that will enable it to try to compete with Vegas, is another Sinatra association and buying a condo there is Kuklinski’s dream. The film references the Gambinos, the Calleys, the Lucchese and other legendary Mafia families Sinatra’s name was often linked to. The places where Kuklinski lives and kills are ones John Travolta’s Tony Manero might have walked through on his way to the disco at this time, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Manero working for DeMeo (Ray Liotta), the gangster who’s got Kuklinski on hitman retainer,  or even in porn if his dancing career in Manhattan had fizzled out.

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The world of The Iceman is like the underbelly of Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, USA, 1977), ethnic working men strutting in platform shoes, tight high-wasted flared trousers over printed shirts with pointy collars, on the fringes of society and trying to get out of their situation in different ways in the same streets and to a similar disco beat. The Iceman makes much of Kuklinki being of Polish origin and its mix of Poles, Irish, Dutch, Italian, and Jewish characters, probably because it’s an accurate historical reflection, but perhaps also because it enables the picture to makes claims about a world and not just one community within it (the way it seems in other mafia films and TV shows from The Godfather films to The Sopranos). The Iceman is telling the story of an individual and one within a very particular context but it’s also operating within and making use of a very potent American mythos – that of the urban gangster — and making use and a particular formal vernacular — that of film noir. I’ll return to the genre and cultural tradition through which the Iceman tell us its story later. But let’s first look at the beginning.

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Beginning Thesis:

‘Mr. Kuklinski, do you have any regrets for the things you’ve done?’ asks a nameless voice over a tight close-up of Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski, famed mafia hitman. We are shown Shannon’s head slightly to the side, half-hidden in darkness; a still, strong, tightly-coiled face with calm calculating eyes; a rough grit-and-granite face, all angles that simultaneously illuminate and enshadow. It’s a perfect question to start the narrative. The diegetic sound has already indicated he’s in jail, so what has he done? And what’s to regret? That play of light and shadow on the sharp planes of Shannon’s face constitutes an ideal image with which to start giving shape to Kuklinski and his world. The Iceman will return to the same scene at its end, when Kuklinski will give us his answer and the film its final nudge to the audience’s judgment of Kuklinski as a person and of Shannon as an actor.

The film then cuts to April 29, 1964 via a high wide shot of a dark urban setting at night; lampposts shine brightly but can barely pierce the darkness. We’re then shown the outside of a cheap diner in a dark street. As we go inside, however, the lens seems to soften and makes the people we see inside seem young, attractive, vulnerable. When I first saw Shannon in Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols, USA, 2007), his lanky frame, soft and measured way of speaking, his ability to be emotionally transparent and unquestionably masculine, reminded me of Henry Fonda. He brings a little of that to this scene: Richie, for that’s what Deborah (Winona Ryder), his date, calls Kuklinski, is soft-spoken, awkward, bashful. ‘You ask a girl for coffee, you should have something to say,’ she tells him.

When Kuklinski looks at Deborah, and this is a testament to Shannon’s achievement as an actor in this part, his face seems to melt and soften as if from metal to flesh. He’s got a neatly combed side-part and wears a mod polo with geometric white piping on the collar. He’s been after her a long time and wants to impress her but can barely get a word out. She’s also neatly dressed; hair bouffed up as was the style then, but not extravagantly so; she wears a neat blouse with a lacey collar — she’s a respectable girl. He likes that kind of good girl. Kuklinski finally finally mumbles that she reminds him of Natalie Wood, only prettier; she ‘aw shucks’ the compliment but she likes it; and as Natalie Wood’s Judy in Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1955) most certainly would, Deborah gets a little thrill from the kind of guy that’s got a grim reaper tattooed between thumb and forefinger. He offers a toast but it’s with water, and she pulls back, saying toasting with water is bad luck. ‘I don’t believe in bad luck,’ he tells her. In fact he doesn’t believe in anything except her.

Just as her aunt arrives to pick her up, he asks Deborah whether he can see her again and she says yes and pecks him quickly on the cheek, even if her aunt is looking: they’re in love. The film is so precise in telling us day, month, and year because it’s the day that changed Kuklinski’s life, brought meaning to it: Deborah’s love, and later that of his children, along with his own love for them, will enable him to latch onto whatever humanity he has left to him.

Second Scene: Anti-Thesis

The second scene shows us Kuklinski playing pool with his buddies. Here it’s all elegant, extreme wide-angle shots of frames within frames within frames, in light browns and muddy yellows. Kuklinski and his buddies hustle a guy who refuses to pay. Kuklinski’s cold stare makes him change his mind but the guy doesn’t know when to shut it and he can’t resist a final insult before leaving, one involving Deborah. In The Iceman, when someone pushes Kuklinsi to the point of no return, his face becomes still and hard. In this case, the first instance we see it, the camera moves in to one of the great images in this film, a key one, in another tight close-up. Kuklinski’s shown to us slightly from below, his face turns to his right, digesting what the fool’s just said, then to his left as he makes a decision. As he does so, his face and the camera come to a stop, the face lit so that exactly half of it is in darkness. The image could be that of Two-Face in the Batman comics with darkness replaces the scarring. Kuklinski’s scars, as we will soon find out, are all internal but this sense of being split into darkness and light in a consciousness that can barely contain that polarity and is always threatening to explode because of it is very important in the film.

I’ve taken some time over the first two scenes of the film not only because they’re crucial in the depiction of the fictional world we will be seeing and in introducing us to the main character but because they also set out the structure of the film and its main themes. First we get the questions. Then we get nice Richie in love followed by the ‘rise’ of Killer Kuklinski. This idea of the double or, perhaps better put, the dark half of a split whole is a structuring idea in the film. It not only enables the type of story already familiar to us from The Sopranos (David Chase, HBO, USA, 1999-2007), the Mafia hit man who’s leading a double-life as a happy family man in the suburbs, but goes deeper into more existential questions: Is evil inherited, is it shaped, why bother to be good at all in a world without God?

‘You gotta feel something for somebody’

When Richie first meets Deborah he tells her that his job is dubbing movies  (as in the making of copies rather than the lending of his voice) for Disney but really it’s dubbing porn for the mob. One day when they come to collect and he doesn’t have them ready (they have the wrong date), they rough him up. Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) is so impressed by Kuklinski’s cool, even with a gun on his face, that he puts him to a test. A few days later, Roy takes him for a ride, makes his sidekick Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer) give a homeless person some money, then points a gun to Kulinski.  ‘Look at that fucking guy, he’s cool as ice’ he tells Josh. Then turning to Kuklinski, ‘you gotta feel something for somebody’. ‘I’ve got a wife and children’. With that Demeo puts the gun away and offers him a deal: if he can kill the homeless man they’ve just given change to, he’s got a job working exclusively for him.

The moment when Kuklinski kills the helpless hobo is an early turning point in the film, one that propels the rest of the narrative until another turning point, on which more later. At this moment, however, the darkness enshrouds the image and half of Kuklinski becomes what the film tells us he might always have been, the ruthless unfeeling hit-man, steeped in a darkness so deep that the screen fades to black. This is then followed by an exciting montage –  thrilling in its editing, jolting in its content — of his hits in various New York/ New Jersey locations overlooking the Hudson and/or the Manhattan skyline. A leap into the dark, an embrace of it, can quicken the pulse and carry its own excitement

 

A Visual Relationship to Noir

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The film looks like a combination of The French Connection (William Friedkin, USA, 1972) and a television documentary: the image is thin and underexposed; sometimes hand-held, sometimes with elegantly composed images, always with a loose feel that foregrounds character against lots of black, as if darkness is oozing into Kuklinski’s world and threatening to swamp it. The hand-held camera is usually used during a hit; the steadier but usually still-mobile shots characteristically showing Kuklinski with his family. Light levels are designed to communicate as well, darkness alternating with light but even the light within the home getting thinner and darker as the film progresses. There are moments where a scene fades completely to black (the murder of the homeless person for example); other moments were the characters turn and become two-dimensional, hard silhouettes momentarily disembodies of their humanity like in that moment in Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946, USA) where Ballen George Macready) subtly threatens Johnny (Glenn Ford). The Iceman is a tour de force of expressive cinematography (by Bobby Bukowski).

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Doubling, Halves, Structural Opposites

Ideas of doubling, of complementary halves, of equal but opposites seem to structure almost every aspect of The Iceman, from minor points to themes to structuring elements. For example, De Meo likes to meet at The Gemini Club; Deborah to Kuklinski is his better half and saving grace; the film asks us to compare Kuklinski to his brother Joey (Stephen Dorff) in Kuklinski’s favour (he’s not sadistic and doesn’t accept contracts on women and children) and the same later on, when Demeo puts a momentary halt on business and Kuklinski has to team up with a scarier, more brutal and sadistic hitman , Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), from whose practice of freezing bodies so police can’t trace the time of death Kuklinski is misnamed ‘The Iceman’. Kuklinski believes he’s better than them, more moral.

The film’s point-of-view and the spectator’s understanding are not always the same as Kuklinki’s. Winona Ryder’s sideways glances, and her hiss at him when their daughter gets run over, hints at her knowing more about what her husband does for a living than she lets on; that her ignorance is as much a feign as his currency dealings. Also, his brother is right when he says Kuklinski will end up right there in Trenton State Prison with him. Lastly, Mr. Freezy might be more sadistic than Kuklinski but Kuklinski has no problem adopting his methods when his condo in Atlantic City’s at stake.

From the moment that Kuklinski starts working for DeMeo until the film’s other turning point, when he’s hired to kill Marty Freeman (James Franco) but leaves loose end, we see first an exciting montage — thrilling in its editing, jolting in its content — of his hits in various New York/ New Jersey locations overlooking the Hudson and/or the Manhattan skyline; after this, such hits are alternated with a happy home sequences of suburban family life in Jersey, as if the dual sides of his nature are perfectly  balanced. He seems to be a happy commuter Dad (though I’m sure some of his hits must have taken place closer to home). But it’s interesting that the film’s second turning point, the beginning of his descent conjoins two ideas, both pertinent to American culture now, but not usually brought together: that of a loss of faith and that of a loss of job.

The Second Turning Point and Descent

Kuklinski, by his own terms, leads a balanced life; he manages to alternate the happy suburban home life and the urban killing very successfully until the film’s other important turning point. Plot-wise the context for it is that Josh Rosenthal, the local capo’s best friend and right hand man, has not only been waving Demeo’s name around without authority and at some risk, but has actually just gone and robbed large amounts of cocaine from two Hispanic dealers. However, those he thought were merely lowly Spics end up being connected to one of the ‘families’ and thus their death requires extracting traditional restitution from DeMeo: the body of the person that did it in a bag. Marty Freeman (James Franco) has been blabbing about that person maybe being Rosenthal. Earlier in the film, when Demeo caught wind that Rosenthal was using his name he told him: ‘You and I have a history together. It means something to me’. Because of that, Demeo, in order to protect Rosenthal and himself, puts out a hit on Freeman; and to make sure it gets done, and without Kuklinski’s knowledge, he puts another hitman on the case, Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans).

Thematically, the turning point is set-up by a scene where Richie and Deborah are spending family time with their children. They’re in the bedroom, the television news is showing coverage of the Vietnam War, and Kuklinski’s eldest girl says that, according to one of the nun’s at school, it’s God’s will for people die in Vietnam. The family has a discussion about this with Deborah saying that God is so busy that he can’t take care of everyone and thus the family has to look after each other. But Kuklinski was an altar boy; ideas of Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell, and the existence of God are what he was raised with. When he goes to kill Marty Freeman and Marty begs for his life, Kuklinski makes him an offer, he’ll give him thirty minutes to pray and if God stops him, he’ll spare his life and take the consequences.

One of the wonderful things about American cinema at the moment is that we see actors’ hunger to perform in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time. They’re taking risky roles in small films, seemingly for the love of it. Here we get the opportunity to see an unrecognizable David Schwimmer as Rosenthal (the audience does giggle when they finally recognize him but only briefly. He’s superb); Chris Pines looking almost unattractive but more manly and dangerous than I’ve ever seen him on screen as Mr. Freezy; a magnificent Stephen Dorff, also completely unrecognizable and truly creepy, slimy, dangerous – I’ve loved him more in other films such as Somewhere   (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2010) but I don’t remember him ever being better. We also get to see Robert Davi, whose very face is as Demeo tells him, an association with bad news, a reason he’s now been a joy to filmgoers for decades; and of course Ray Liotta, who must have recently hired the best script-reader in Hollywood because after years of working in dross, in the last year alone he’s appeared in Killing Them Softly and The Place Beyond the Pines, which is to say the very best of current American cinema. And not least, a much desired return of the glorious Winona Ryder to the screen in a leading role. One just sighs with pleasure at the sight of her; and she’s very good here – there’s a core of steel under that lace collar. But the greatest scene in the movie is almost ruined by James Franco.

Detour into Franco

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I love James Franco and think he’s been unjustly criticized for interests that should in fact be praised: an interest in art in general first; then for actually writing, painting, performing, directing; then for wanting to extend himself as an actor in a variety of parts. I loved him in Oz, The Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, USA, 2012) and thought nobody else could have captured the shabby, kind-of-ladies man but too honest and goofy to be a lady-killer, gauche, sweet not-innocent Oz; the loveable, sexy but not dangerously so, two-bit conman: He’s just perfect in that role. But he’s not here. His performance as Marty is lazy, as if he’s just arrived from something more important on his way to something more important still, plopped himself on his knees and told Ariel Vromen to hurry up and get on with it.

This, in the most important scene in the film and playing with and against Michael Shannon, whose performance here must stake a claim to his being one of the very finest actors working in American cinema today. Star or not, if Franco, can’t deliver, particularly in a small but crucial role such as this one, he should have been re-cast; and I hold it against the production that such a crucial role should end up so amorphous and lifeless on screen. As if, instead of Rod Steiger, it was the winner of some hick high-school acting contest that ended up opposite Brando in the ‘I could have been a contender’ scene in On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, USA, 1954).

Existential Kuklinski

Kuklinki’s a walking existential question. Like Camus’ Merseault in The Stranger  (1942) he feels no connection to others, but he doesn’t particularly seek meaning, though his family gives him that. Yet in his offer of mercy to Marty he’s pushing his daughter’s question, ‘why does God let innocent people die?’ further: Does God exist at all? Whilst Franco’s busy being an inert blob, Shannon, filmed from below, like Satan himself challenging God, urges him to pray. ‘Go ahead’ he says quietly, ‘Our father….’. ‘I’m not feeling nothing,’ he warns Marty, ‘nothing at all’. ‘Pray harder’. ‘Your last chance,’ he warns .

Jean Paul-Sartre dramatized alienation in works like Nausea (1938)and more systematically explored the question of Being in a world without God in works of philosophy like Being and Nothingness (1943). But films, even not quite great ones like The Iceman, sometimes offer moments of better emotional understanding of such existential questions, of understanding and feeling, even if only briefly,  the void that opens up in the moment that Kuklinski tells Marty, ‘I think God’s busy’ and offs him.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote, ‘“I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse; for from the instant of my upsurge into being, I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help.’ Arguably, Kuklinski has known this from the very beginning.  But it is from this moment that his sense of responsibility for his family supersedes, erases, justifies, a loss of taking responsibility for his own actions; it’s the moment where he stops to shape his world and it starts to shape him.

From then on, it’s a descent into the same place we first met his brother both physically and emotionally, though Kuklinki is perhaps more aware of this, and will feel it more acutely. First, Richie loses his job, and the loss of his job, leads to a lack of self-worth and a loss of status in the home. To recover some of that, he becomes ‘The Iceman’. But the stresses of doing this type of work, then means he loses his family (the one thing he regrets) when they start seeing him as Jekyll and Hyde figure (which he’s never been in his own mind).  Finally we’re made aware of the full extent of loss of self when his square face turns almost to the camera at the end to assert that hurting his family is the only thing he regrets.

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It seems that recently I’ve seen a whole series of films about men in America (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, Killing them Softly) where the loss of a job is tied to crime, or the job is crime. What types of ways men are allowed to perform a  particular type of masculinity is tied to their having a job or not, to them being criminalized or not and when that happens. There’s a racial and ethnic dimension to this as well that The Iceman hints at through its ethic mix but doesn’t quite explore. James Baldwin has a wonderful passage in The Evidence of Things Not Seen where he quotes a black spiritual that goes ‘When a woman gets the blues Lord, she bows her head and cries/ When a man gets the blues lord, he takes the train and rides.’ But Baldwin reminds us that we should ask ‘Why does the black man take the train and ride, why does he flee from his responsibilities’. Baldwin’s answer is that America posits normative and idealised ways of being men in America and then doesn’t allow Black Men inhabit those norms or ideals, thus the ‘take the train and ride’. I think these films are raising very similar questions today. What is an ideal way of being a man in America today and does a normal working joe have to kill someone in order to be that guy.

The Iceman is not a great film but it’s a serious and satisfying one, with Shannon’s performance sure to become legendary. It has  a beautiful use of light and shadows from cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, and memorable dialogue. Immediately after I saw it, my view was that Shannon was superb but the film itself no great shakes. I still think that to a degree; but it’s a rare film that inspires me to write at this length, rarer still in a film I don’t particularly like. It’s a film that but for the actors, and that of course is the biggest but, one can’t divorce them from the film, but if one could, The Iceman is almost more interesting to think about than to see. Maybe further viewings will bring out yet more. It’s a film to ponder, and in thinking about Shannon, to ponder with awe.

José Arroyo

Superman (Zack Snyder, USA, 2013)

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man of steel

Henry Cavill in Man of Steel looks more like the Superman of my imagination than Brandon Routh ever did in Superman Returns; he’s got the better curls; more defined cheekbones and squarer jaw; a beefier, hairier and more masculine body. Routh looked too nice and insubstantial, like a scared rabbit suddenly comforted by a gentle stroke. However, Christopher Reeve’s gee-gosh Superman remains the definitive one; and that goes for Margot Kidder’s klutzy Lois and Terence Stamp’s glamorously decadent Zod as well. No one I’ve seen since has erased my memory or lessened my affection for those three actors in those roles.

Man of Steel also suffers in comparison to the earlier films in other ways: it lacks the sense of wonder and amazement we felt when watching Superman fly or use his super-powers in the 1978 film directed by Richard Donner; it also lacks the wit and charm Richard Lester brought to Superman II (1980), though to be fair, wit and charm is not what’s aimed for here:  Zac Snyder was probably chosen to direct because of the ‘mythic seriousness’ he brought to Wachmen; but he unfortunately also ends up bringing way too much of the heavy-handed portentousness evident in 300 .

The film is long and feels it. The myth of origin story that would be periodically retold in comic books since  the 1940s via only a few panels  is here slow to get going and then ends up taking almost two and half-hours to finish. There is some flashy design: I particularly like how the Krypton story is visualized as molten metal that looks like fascist coin reliefs. But quite a lot of the film drags There’s not a single joke. The only time the audience seems to react to the movie at all is when a young female soldier can’t stop staring at Henry Cavill because ‘he’s hot’. He is indeed, and the film has some dazzling scenes, mostly towards the end with the aerial fight sequences. I also like how Michael Shannon brings an air of Boris Karloff to his playing of Zod. But there’s not much that truly delights.

Man of Steel looks grayish-blue, as if darkening everything made it ‘deeper’. But really, it just means we neither see well not get to experience the aesthetic pleasure of a fuller colour palette. There’s so much destruction of buildings and cars that one gets beyond caring. Special effects were once prized because they filled the audience with awe and wonder; in seeming to make us see the impossible they evoked feeling; now effects seems to have lost touch with affect; there’s nothing at stake in all of these bombs blowing up and buildings falling; it just seems to be a matter of perspective and scale, as in drawing. Explosions are bigger, we can see costumes and space ships with greater clarity. But the effect of bigger and clearer does not end up being more intense, or complex or more fun.

I can see what attracted Russell Crowe to the part of Jor-El — the challenge of filling Brando’s shoes — but they weren’t very big shoes in that role, and they remain unfilled – Brando’s performance was pretty lazy but he had that zaftig silvery look that connoted something extraterrestrial or deific. Crowe is fine but doesn’t erase the memory of Brando or add anything new. And what I truly don’t understand is why they go to so much trouble to avoid saying Superman, it’s almost always Clark or Jor-El, they also pretty much avoid association with the American flag (which would have been unthinkable once; Superman was as much a symbol of America as the Red, White, and Blue) but the film still can’t help getting all misty eyed with the boys in uniform. It looks like the filmmakers spent a lot of time thinking through these changes but they didn’t resolve them well.

I suppose when I think of it, one can’t resist going to see it.  It’s a big-budget spectacle with lots of big stars and a name director on one of the great visually iconic myths of 20th Century pop culture. The connection to Christ is clunky and explicit but woven in so tightly on so many levels of the narrative that it’s bound to keep fan boys and scholars busy ‘interpreting’ for years to come. On another level, there are also interesting connections that can be made in relation to the Galactus figure in the Silver Surfer and how some elements of those story-lines are woven here. Viewers may be interested in the casting of Larry Fishbourne as Perry White; or that the Jimmy Olson character is now named something else and runs a website; or that some fool decided to cast the glorious Diane Lane as Ma Kent (MA Kent!). Admittedly, the set-pieces are good, with the areal fight between Zod and Superman better than that, genuinely exciting in fact. But really, it’s a dud of a film.

José Arroyo

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (Ten Shimoyama, Japan, 2005)

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Kids of all  ages should enjoy this story of teenagers who fall in love but belong to different warrior clans. It’s like a Romeo and Juliette story but here each member of the family has special warrior skills (superpowers really). The Lord whom they serve decides they are too powerful and sets them in conflict against each other with the aim of wiping them out. The protagonists struggle to reconcile their love for one  another with their loyalty to their family and clan; sadly, the latter wins out. A difference between at least some Eastern and Western cultures is the way that this narrative plays out in narrative: in my experience, in movies from the East the protagonists always, ultimately, finally, and in spite of any number of always motivated rebellions, bow down to authority. It is worth mentioning here the superb special effects that can now be created on smaller budgets. Hollywood better wake up or it will soon be playing on an even playing field and start losing. It’s losing now. With Yukie Nakama, Jô Odagiri, Tomoka Kurotani

José Arroyo

The Expandables 2 (Simon West, USA, 2012)

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the expandables

Sylvester Stallone has had so many facelifts he now looks like an unsexy version of the cartoons Mad Magazine used to do of him in the 70’s.  Yet he’s now been starring in big-budget movies for close to 40 years. Bullet to the Head (James Bonomo, USA, 2012) also had a theatrical release earlier this year and is now out on DVD plus there are two more films currently in postproduction. The man’s career is unstoppable. Why that is so is a mystery: I can’t think of another star who’s sustained that kind of career for that long with barely two good films in his filmography — The Expendables 2 isn’t one of them. Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude van Damme, Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren and other 80’s action stars parade through the film like a taxidermist’s prize exhibit. Jet Li and Jason Statham figure as more recent generations of action stars. Liam Hemsworth presumably wants to join the club. It was a hit.

José Arroyo