189-193: Bruges, Cliffhanger, Trouble, Chernobyl, Instead


189: In Bruges

In Bruges looked like just another action movie to me. Even the involvement of one of my favorite actors, Brendan Gleeson, wasn’t enough to get me to watch it. But during the years following its initial release more and more people came out of the woodwork to confess their mistake in dismissing In Bruges in the manner I did. I decided to give in and give In Bruges a chance and what do you know… it is brilliant. So incredibly not what I was expecting. Central to the story are two British criminals who are sent to Bruges in Belgium to lay low for a while after a tragic accident. There they have to wait for their boss to call with instructions. What seems to be a regular crime story with two thugs spending time in one of the most dreamy cities in Europe turns into an existential fight for survival and redemption. There are a lot of great performances in In Bruges. Colin Farrell is brilliant as the petty criminal who acts more like a bored child than a professional hitman and Brendan Gleeson is masterful as ever as the hardened criminal who is trying to keep everything together somehow. Their chemistry starts to build throughout the movie to culminate in a sequence that is truly harrowing. Martin McDonagh wrote and directed a movie that will stay with you for a long time. I loved it. See it.


190: Cliffhanger

It was a Saturday night, I was tired, so I went and stood in front of my DVD cabinet to find a movie that wouldn’t challenge me one bit. The result was Cliffhanger, a Sylvester Stallone vehicle directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) I had not seen in fifteen years or so. And with good reason, because this movie turned out to be even more dumb than I remembered. The screenplay is so incredibly full of holes and implausibilities that it took all the fun of the action out of it for me. I think the whole reason why I (and many with me) look back fondly on Cliffhanger is the opening sequence, which is as horrendously suspenseful as ever. If you have anything resembling vertigo I urge you to skip the opening sequence and pick up what happened there from the rest of the movie (that shouldn’t be too hard). When the screenplay turns out to be so incredibly dumb, is there still something to be enjoyed in Cliffhanger? Sure, the action is decent throughout the movie, the acting is deliciously over the top and the scenery is beautiful (actually shot in Italy, not Colorado). Cliffhanger is a clear example of just about every action movie made in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s: big brutish heroes taking on mindless groups of evil doers with lots of explosions and extravagant stunts. It’s just that sometimes one movie hits it out of the park and the other takes a walk. And yes I am talking about Die Hard being the slugger, not Cliffhanger.


191: Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve is a sports movie of the most common denominator. And I so wanted this to be another Moneyball, a smart look at the business of baseball and what goes on behind the scenes of my favorite sport. But what I got was a melodramatic mess about an old baseball scout (Clint Eastwood) who doesn’t want to accept he is losing his grip on his job and his estranged daughter (Amy Adams) who wants to be close to her dad if only he wasn’t such an insufferable asshole. Trouble with the Curve is in fact the polar opposite of Moneyball. It goes out of its way to tell us that the new baseball (as seen in Moneyball and now used around the league) is much worse than the old school way of finding talent. Therefore everybody who has anything to do with computers and spreadsheets is presented as oafish and all the old guard is portrayed as lovable and eccentric. In addition to this incessant polarization the screenplay takes a turn for the worse when a telegraphed red herring from the first act is used to finish the movie in the cheapest way possible. During that first act of Trouble with the Curve I thought I was dealing with a movie that understood baseball, but it turned out it didn’t know anything about it at all. I guess I’ll have to grab my copy of Moneyball and erase Trouble with the Curve from my baseball loving brain.


192: Chernobyl Diaries

As far as useless found footage movies go Chernobyl Diaries is right up there with the worst of them. We are witness to a group of young people traveling around Europe and ending up in the Ukraine to participate in a tour of the area surrounding Chernobyl, the site of the most horrendous accident involving nuclear materials. Their focus is Pripyat, a village where everybody had to drop what they were doing to escape the evil that was spouting from the reactor. Now, supposedly, the radiation levels are low enough to go wandering around the village (which they aren’t by the way in real life). Of course their visit isn’t without peril, because when they want to leave the village they discover they are not alone, something has been left behind. Chernobyl Diaries comes from the brain of Oren Peli, who also fathered the Paranormal Activity series. As with so many other found footage crap movies, Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t think it’s necessary to actually convincingly tell us a story that could be called found footage. The camera angles are all circumstantial and in no way believable like the pioneers (e.g. The Blair Witch Project) were. Let’s hope Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t spawn a load of sequels as Paranormal Activity did and still does. That would be truly disastrous.


193: You Instead (Tonight You’re Mine)

Having been to quite a few music festivals in my younger days (wow, I sound old) I can get behind the vibe of You Instead (or Tonight You’re Mine, I’m not sure which is the right title), David Mackenzie’s latest feature. He actually filmed the movie at a music festival and that lends it a tremendous amount of goodwill. Goodwill that is much needed, since the screenplay is nearly devoid of anything interesting. It is a love story about two musicians, one British and one American, who are handcuffed to each other by some mysterious festival patron. They will have to spend the rest of the weekend, their gigs and day-to-day activities chained to each other. Of course something beautiful blooms between the two of them and everything will be all right in the end. You see, nothing special. The charm of You Instead comes from the images and situations Mackenzie chooses. The drunk, muddy, stoned get-together around a campfire, the sweaty tents filled with thumping music and those quiet mornings when you try to think of a reason why you drank so much the night before (believe me, I’ve been there). This was actually the only reason why I continued watching You Instead… nostalgia. At least You Instead has a lot more life to it than Mackenzie’s last feature Perfect Sense, which I found excruciatingly boring and completely forgettable.


128: The Expendables 2

In 2010 Sylvester Stallone unleashed a new concept: the geriatric action movie. Or: take a bunch of washed up action heroes, add some younger guys to push their wheelchairs around and have them shoot at anything that moves. No excuses, no plot, just guns, explosions and fun. The Expendables took in nearly 300 million dollars worldwide, so the inevitable sequel was put into production almost immediately and now we get to ‘enjoy’ another one of these self-congratulatory exercises. Well, here goes…

I was not a fan of the first Expendables. The first two acts were fine, but the movie fell apart completely in the last act when the safeties were removed from the guns. It was a chaotic orgy of nonsensical violence that had nearly nothing to do with what came before. It was as if Stallone, who directed the first installment, was bored with all that pesky storytelling and decided to go all out just for the heck of it. For The Expendables 2 Stallone surrendered the helm of his movie to Simon West, director of Con Air and The Mechanic. I was hoping that West could perhaps add some meaning to what could be a terrific franchise.

Boy, was I wrong. The Expendables 2 doesn’t just continue where the first movie ended, it expands on its stupidity in a way that is just laughable. While The Expendables had some sort of emotional undercurrent that made sense in its alternate universe and sometimes actually felt genuine. The sequel goes for the cheap emotional way out with a contrived tangent in which the youngest member of the crew has found the love of his life in France and now wants out. Of course he is the first one to go (sorry, spoiler), because then Stallone can stand over his grave and say stuff like, “Why do the good ones always go first and the bad ones get to stay alive. What’s the message in that?” (I could have some of these words wrong, because most of the time it is extremely hard to actually understand what Stallone is growling.) It is all so simplistic that it actually hurts the movie. Yes, you heard me right, the writing hurts this movie.

Before you start ragging on me about being too harsh on The Expendables 2 because it is only a piece of mindless entertainment. I would like to add that I would have loved for The Expendables to be mindless entertainment, but it often tries so hard not to be that. West is a director who knows how to film action sequences, those are excellent and nicely over the top. He has no idea however how to frame that action with a story the audience can be invested in. If Stallone had gotten a director who knows how to balance these elements this could have been a much better movie.

Just look at the roster. How can you go wrong with guys like Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren (who is surprisingly funny), Terry Crews, Randy Couture and new to the cast are Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris. Returning for their small parts (although a little bigger than the last time) are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis.

It was highly advertised that Willis and Schwarzenegger would have larger roles this time around and while technically this is true, it is also not really that. These two gentlemen don’t have much more to do here than in the first movie. They enter and leave the movie on a regular basis and the only thing they get to do is shoot and make fun of themselves. They even go so far as having Schwarzenegger utter his famous line “I’ll be back”, with Willis replying, “No, you stay, I’ll be back”, to which Arnie replies, “Yippie-ki-yay”. If that isn’t the pinnacle of painfully obvious fanservice than I don’t know what is. And all this transpires during the climactic shoot-out, which in the good tradition of The Expendables doesn’t make any sense at all.

Is there something fun to behold in this second Expendables? Well, that depends on your ability to handle plotholes, stupid dialogue and extreme amounts of gratuitous gore. From the very first moments Stallone and his crew appear, it is clear that we are not in for a subtle exercise. Blood splatters freely from bodies that are dismembered in a variety of fashions. I found nothing funny in all of this, while it was certainly played up as funny. There were some funny moments, but mostly my smiles came from a place where I thought to myself, “Geeze, they actually went there.” In the end all I could think was that a cast of this magnitude deserves more than what The Expendables 2 has become: a joke on itself and that is just not fair to those involved.

> IMDb