Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Recent Thoughts

The Expendables

Sylvester Stallone’s action romp and ode to 80’s excess is a film that certainly has its fan base… and there’s nothing wrong with that. For my taste, though, I couldn‘t get past “The Exependables” genuine sloppiness. Incomprehensible car chases, incomprehensible fight scenes with flaying limbs and exploding guts, and even worse, dialogue scenes that are inexplicably cut mid-sentence with zero chemistry (were Willis, Schwarzenegger and Stallone even in the same building when their trio scene was filmed???) all reveal the very bad director in Stallone…. Which is disappointing because he seemed to have a strong grasp of visual language in his under appreciated “Rocky Balboa”. “The Expendables” will surf by on its star power alone. If one watches this thing with a pitcher a beer in hand, I’m sure the fun is emphasized. Sober is another experience, though.


Johnnie To’s previous few films have leaned towards the western genre, with groups of men slowly sizing each other up in carefully choreographed frames. In “Vengeance”, when the two opposing sides of bad and very-bad guys line up for the last hurrah, To makes everything feel like a battle from the crusades with newspaper sailing through the air, each side rolling towards each other behind bales of paper and one group encamped on a steel scaffold overlooking the carnage. “Vengeance: is nothing new from Hong Kong auteur To, but it still fresh brash and dazzling. French actor Johnny Hallyday (“Man on the Train”, “The Iron Triangle”) returns to his retired life of crime to avenge the death of his daughter’s family. All of To’s regulars (Simon Yam, Anthony Wong, written by Kai-Wai Fae) are back in action and, if its possible, To again finds unusual and energetic ways for guys to get into gun battles. But beyond the sense of “coolness” that permeates most of Johnnie To’s films, there’a also a serious desire to startle…. Take for example the opening scene where a young wife (Sylvie Testud) runs to open the door for her family and a reflection of a killer waiting outside is seen briefly behind her. Naysayers can call To a flamboyant throwback to the halcyon days of John Woo and Ringo Lam, but the fact that he’s still making films that search for something distinct in a generic world of action thrillers (see above) is still quite bold. I can’t wait for what he does next.


Director Emir Kusturica (“Underground”, “”When father Was Away On Business”) has been missed behind the camera as of late, but his solid turn as Russian spy Sergei Gregoriev in Christian Carion’s Cold War drama “Farewell” is an indication that all is well with the eccentric filmmaker. In fact, I’d go so far as to call his performance- a mixture of resolute confidence and heartbreaking humanity- as one of the best of the year and very deserving of international acclaim. His French contact, also played by a talented filmmaker in Guillaume Canet (“Tell No One”), is the narrative cipher for the audience, but its Kusturica’s noble whistleblower that gives “Farewell” its depth. Things bog down a bit whenever the American perspective is brought into view through the somewhat gimmicky performance of Fred Ward as Ronald Reagan, but for the most part, Carion’s film is a very serious and quiet spy thriller that trusts the audience to absorb the plot mechanics. And Carion certainly knows how to build suspense, none more so than in the final 20 minutes, crosscutting between escape and interrogation. Clint Mansell’s evocative score also adds to the film’s tragic overture. “Farewell” isn’t out there in wide release, but its well worth tracking down.

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