Saturday, December 18, 2010

Expendables is a Bloody Mess, But Still Entertaining

Sylvester Stallone has absolutely nothing to prove. He is a bonafide star. He created one of the most inspirational roles of all time. You could even call his Rocky the epitome of inspiration. So when he makes a film like this one, I can only close my eyes and invision his pitch to the studio...(in Stallone's voice) "Alright, so what I'm thinkin' is we're gonna get every action hero togetha from the last 10 years, and just blow s**t up." Well, it the execs went for it. And here it is, in all it's bloody splendor.

Stallone, who also wrote and directed, stars as Barney Ross. He and his group of mercenaries (Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren...etal) are given a job to stop the reign of a ruthless South American dictator, General Garza. Along the way, they encounter a rogue ex-FBI agent, James Munroe, played by Eric Roberts. He too wants to stop Garza, but only at a time that is most convenient for him, and his wallet. It seems formulaic, and it is, but there was something about this movie that felt original. I just couldn't put my finger on it.

I felt conflicted on this one. On one hand, the whole story is kind of ludicris when you get right down to it. We have a group of mercenaries who operate out of an auto/tattoo shop, run by a guy named Tool (Mickey Rourke, who was one of the best parts of the film) and their job is so clandestine, that none of them have private lives, and those that do choose to ignore them. On the other hand, there's some great action sequences in the film. Just not as many as I'd hoped. Jason Statham astounds me every time I see him. His soft spoken English accent makes the manner in which he delivers his dialogue more diabolical. He his also an amazing stuntman and athlete. He's famous for performing most of his own stunts, having had extensive martial arts training prior to his acting career. He, along with Rourke, is also one of the bright spots in the film. There are some good moments between the actors, some cool (and often bloody) action sequences, and even an appearance by an action hero turned politician, but overall, as the viewer, I just felt kind of overwhelmed by trying to like the movie, but realizing that I really didn't.

For the action lover, this delivers. But if you're looking for the whole package; action, smart dialogue...etc, you'll want to look elsewhere. This was a good action movie, but nothing more substantial than that.

Inception is Original, and Amazing

It's hard not to have a new perception on one's dreams after seeing this film. Once your in a dream, your idea of what's real and what isn't is altered. When you're in a dream, you don't actually realize you're in a dream, that is, until, you wake up. At that point you realize that the world you were in was simply a creation of your subconscious mind. In our world now, we could not begin to understand what takes place in another's mind while they sleep. But in this film, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, not only is it possible, but seemingly commonplace.

In the film, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a thief of sorts who, along with his highly skilled crew, makes a living infiltrating a person's dreams to steal valuable secrets. With the promise of being able to return home to be with his children, he reluctanty accepts one last job. But instead of extracting an idea from their subject, he's hired by Mr. Saito, a wealthy industrialist, played by Ken Watanabe, and given the task of inception, or planting an idea. Their subject is Mr. Saito's rival industrialist. After losing their initial architect, Nash, played by Lukas Hass, Cobb recruits a young protege named Ariadne, played by Ellen Page. With the rest of his crew, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the team embarks on a journey through the subconscious, all the while fighting Cobb's own subconscious. What we're given is a well written film with amazing affects. This film is an onion, and we as the viewer, or the cooks, have many layers to peel back and get through in order to get to the core.

This is easily one of the best films I've seen in recent years. The idea of infiltrating one's dreams is complex. So much so that the film becomes one that you have to watch again and again. Each time, you pick up more of the complex ideas. While this technology is unseen in our modern world, you still get a sense that this concept is rooted in our reality. Every one of us dreams at night. These dreams can be so vivid, in either a good or a bad way, that you're either depressed or relieved when you wake up. These would be the same feelings you would have if you'd actually been through a traumatic or wonderful experience.

Leonardo DiCaprio was perfect for this role. This is saying a lot. Until his role as reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes in 2004's "The Aviator", I can't say that I was a big fan. I often found his acting forced and unbelievable. There are even moments during "The Aviator" when those old feelings begin to creep up. However, as he's aged, his acting has softened. He is believable as a man who wants to be home to care for his family. Had the film been made ten years ago, I don't think it would have been quite as well rounded. Ellen Page's acting is notable as well. She's an amazingly accomplished actress. Many know her from her excellent, and Academy Award nominated performance as the title character in Juno, most likely the role that put her name up on the coveted "A" List. Whether she plays a quirky mother to be, or a brilliant architect, she's subtle yet believable, and most definitely likeable.

I loved this film. It was highly entertaining, complex, and yet, very simple. I would whole-heartedly recommend this film. Two thumbs way, way up!!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

"Kind Hearts" is a Disturbing, Yet Funny Film

Alec Guinness is a name that is perhaps lost on those of my generation. However, when the name "Star Wars" is uttered, everybody immediately knows what that is, it's famous characters and plot lines. Maybe they can even remember where they were when the first saw it. Alec Guinness played Luke Skywalker's jedi master and mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original three films. But his film career was decades old when he played this role. He was a very accomplished actor, in fact. This film from 1949 certainly shows his versatility.

As the film opens, were are introduced to a man, Louis Mazzini, (Dennis Price) a duke who is in prison for multiple homicides. His story unfolds through flashback, as he sits in prison awaiting his impending death. Long ago, his mother belonged to the D'Ascoyne family, a very wealthy family in 19th-century England. She falls in love and elopes with a man, much to her family's dismay. She is disowned by her family, and thus, is no longer able to inherit her rightful place within the family, nor shall any of her offspring. As Mazzini grows up with only his mother, he sees over the years how this has affected both of their lives. As Louis comes into adolescence, then adulthood, he too begins to work menial jobs in order to make ends meet. Then, tragedy strikes. His mother is in an accident. He can't bare the sight of his mother's small grave site. Had she never been disowned, she would have been laid to rest in grand style with her family. He makes a vow, then and there, that he will dispose of every D'Ascoyne that stands in his way of the dukedom. Come to find out that there are eight of them. Enter Alec Guinness...again and again. He plays all eight heirs, including one woman, Lady Agatha. And so, Mazzini's horrific plan comes to fruition. He gets a job at a bank, at first as a teller, but he quickly works his way up, and becomes the personal assistant of "The Banker", who happens to be one of the heirs to the D'Ascoyne dynasty. As he befriends each of the heirs, they suddenly begin disappearing in increasingly mysterious ways.

Firstly, Guinness's portrayal, or rather, portrayals, is worth noting. This, more than any other film, shows how flexible and versatile an actor he was. As mentioned earlier, he was perhaps best known for his role in "Star Wars". However, it was a film he famously grew to lament. This manner of playing multiple roles in one film is undoubtedly difficult, and can only be done with the right actor. There are three notable actors who have done this successfully. The first is Peter Sellers, who played multiple characters in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 dark comedy "Dr. Strangelove". The next two played the same role, one who originated the role, and the other, who made a remake years later. Those would be Jerry Lewis (who originated the "Nutty Professor") and later Eddie Murphy. Lewis was known to play multiple roles in several of his films. Murphy was very impressive because his multiple characters were often in the same scene together (such as at the dinner table). But I believe it was Guinness who did it first. His characters may not have been in the same room as another, and often, each character would be in the film for only a few minutes, but he played each character as if it were the only character he played. Secondly, Dennis Price's role as Mazzini is also worth noting. Mazzini is not a murderer in the sense of Jack the Ripper, or a character in a James Patterson murder novel. He is subtle. He does not want people to know that he is the perpetrator. He plays along with everybody, believing that each member of this family has died under "mysterious circumstances". It was a shame that Price did not have a very prominent film career. This was one of the few films in which he played a very prominent role. He was later relegated to small roles in "B" films as a servant or butler. Finally, I want to briefly acknowledge the female roles in the film, those NOT played by Guinness. The first is the role of Mazzini's mother, played by Audrey Fildes. She was perhaps one of the strongest parts of the film, because, had she not been thrown aside by her family, Louis would not have had to go through with such a plan. Secondly is the role of Sibella Holland, played by Joan Greenwood. When Louis loses his mother, he is taken in by the Holland family. Louis and Sibella become close friends, and grow to love each other. But in the latter part of the film, Sibella becomes just as dastardly as Louis. Sibella, you could say, is the femme-fatale. Finally is the character of Edith D'Ascoyne, played by Valerie Hobson. After her husband's death, she starts to spend more time with Louis, not knowing that he is the very man responsible for her husband's death. Edith is perhaps the weakest, or perhaps the most naive women in the film. Nonetheless, her role is one of the most important.

This film was very entertaining, despite the plot of the film. It goes without saying, but Guinness was the heart of the film. Without his eight distinct characters, the film would have just been another film about a mass-murderer, out to avenge his mother, and restore her name. This was an excellent film with a complex story and great acting. I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"Limelight" is a Touching Film

Charles Chaplin was an incredibly versatile performer. Of course, he was known for his "Little Tramp" character, but he was also a writer, producer, director, composer and a groundbreaking business mogul. He was also one of the founders on Universal studios. This 1952 film, in which he starred, wrote produced, directed and scored, is a poignant tale of two people who help each other to discover their purpose, and re-discover hope in their lives.

Chaplin plays Calvero, an aging, alcoholic comedian who has all but given up. He arrives home one day to find that his neighbor, Terry, played by Claire Bloom, has made an attempt on her own life. Calvero pulls her out of her apartment, takes her up to his and nurses her back to health. Along the way, he tells her of his life as a comedian, and she tells him of her aspirations to become a ballet dancer, and of a love lost. He works to convince her that her dream is worth pursing, and she tries to convince him that what he does still means something. Most of the film is filmed in Calvero's third story boarding house apartment, and each person's story is told through a series of flashbacks. Together, they learn of each other's past, help one another through the present, and move together into the future. Upon realizing her dream, Terry meets the man she supposedly loves, Neville, played by Chaplin's son Sydney, a composer. Neville tries to convince Terry that she loves him, but she is drawn to the older Calvero. He in turn, tries to convince her that she does not love him, but he cannot help but share her feelings.

While watching this film, one cannot help but make comparisons to Chaplin's own career. At the time this film was made, a new media in television was quickly coming on the scene, making Chaplin's profession one for the older generation. While the setting of the film is set in 1914, the story definitely mirrors the times in which it was filmed. Chaplin's portrayal is multi-layered. He's funny, as one would expect, but he's also inspiring and dramatic. Bloom's character also has many dimensions. Terry, at the onset of the film, is despondent, but while she's being cared for by Calvero, she shows a lightness. Both are shown, and she moves back and forth between the two seamlessly. There are many minor roles in the film as well, but there are a few that stand out. The first is the role of Neville. I wasn't aware that he was played by Chaplin's own son, because on screen, the two seem to have a disdain for each other. Secondly is the role of Mrs. Alsop, Calvero's and Terry's landlady, played by Marjorie Bennett. Mr. Alsop appears to have nothing but hatred for her tenants. Once Calvero begins to take care of Terry, she refers to them as "living in sin". She calls Terry "trouble" and seemingly has no qualms about rendering her homeless. However, she is easily manipulated by Calvero's charming personality. Finally, Buster Keaton plays a small role as Calvero's stage partner. Their scene together in the latter part of the film was one of the best scenes in the film. It showed how brilliant the two men were, not only separately, but together as well.

There's no doubt that Charlie Chaplin was an excellent and inventive filmmaker. Even in his later film, such as this, it's not hard to see it and be overwhelmed with a sense of awe. Having not seen his other post silent-era films, I can't make any comparisons, but if they're as good as this one, I will be seeing them soon. I highly recommend this film, not only for the Chaplin fan, but anyone who likes a film with excellent acting and dialogue.

Day and Cagney an Odd Pairing, But Yet Work Well

Doris Day has her signature song "Que Sera Sera". Cagney is known as a character actor who was typically cast in gangster roles. This film from 1955 "Love Me, or Leave Me" has a little bit of everything; music (courtesy of Day) comedy, drama and suspense. But it all works together, as all actors portray their respective roles well.

This film is a fictionalized story of 1920's jazz singer Ruth Etting. Etting begins her career as just another girl in the chorus. She has aspirations to be something more. A chance meeting with manager Martin Snyder, played by Cagney, soon changes both of their lives, but not in a favorable way. True to form, Cagney plays Snyder, a brilliant business man, albeit one with gangster tendencies and a hot temper. Snyder's obsession with his new protege culminates in a tempestuous marriage, one that he makes Etting believe she owes him, since, without him, she would still be just another chorus girl. When Etting falls for her show's piano man, Johnny, played by Cameron Mitchell, a story of a light-hearted vaudeville show with a suspenseful undertone becomes just the opposite. We eventually see Snyder's true colors shine, and Cagney's most famous persona, that of a cold hearted gangster, comes to light.

Cagney's performance is certainly worthy of his Academy Award nomination he garnered for his performance as Martin Snyder. As any other role I've seen him in, especially one in which he plays this type of character, his role as Snyder gave me chills. Not only do we see that Snyder is a man who is used to getting his way (strangely enough, so was Cagney) but we see an underlying vulnerability. Cagney played his numerous gangster roles with equal parts ruthlessness and humanity. While Snyder is ruthless, stopping at no lengths to keep his wife from leaving him, he also shows sorrow and regret for his actions. Doris Day was a seasoned actress when she made this film, with several successful films to her credit. She was certainly able to hold her own with Cagney. However, while Etting's story is certainly dramatic, I felt that Day's portrayal was slightly over dramatized. There's much to be said for subtlety. Many of Cagney's female co-stars did very well opposite him, and were able to play their roles dramatically, yet subdued. Most notably was Margaret Wycherly's role as Cagney's "Cody" Jarrett's mother,'Ma' Jarrett in "White Heat". Ma was just as ruthless as her son, and her calm demeanor made the role all the more chilling. While Day certainly went on to become famous in her own right for her music and films, I believe this role could have been played down and still been just as effective. Despite this, she performs well and is able to hold her own against Cagney's larger than life, egotistical Marty Snyder, which was undoubtedly not easy.

While this film was certainly over dramatic at times, it's certainly worthy of the praise it received, having won the Academy Award the following year for best screenplay. Cagney and Day performed well opposite each other, and the supporting actors played their roles with equal aplomb. There's is certainly something for everyone in this film. I definitely recommend it.