Tag Archives: Arnold Schwarzenegger

An Incidental Critique — The Expendables 2

By Dan Marse-Kapr

Let me begin by saying two things about myself: (1) I’m a straight man. (2) I’m a feminist.

I understand that this is not the sort of thing one usually announces at the beginning of a movie review. But the genre of hyper-violent action-packed mega-blockbusters has often been treated as reflecting the essence of what heterosexual manliness is all about—which is odd, because to describe the genre accurately, you have to use phrases like “men with bulging ripply muscles whose tattered shirts eventually fall off” with a completely straight face.

 

It's not a man's movie until all those clothes get ripped off.

It’s not a man’s movie until all those clothes get ripped off.

 

Anyway, in spite of my feminism, I am a sucker for violent, big-budget action movies featuring cops who play by their own rules and other such nonsense. These movies are a guilty pleasure for me, because even though I think their ideas about “masculinity” are laughable, I can’t stop enjoying them. I enjoyed Taken. I enjoy the Die Hard movies (except for Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Die Hard 5: That Much Suspension of Disbelief Is Impossible). I enjoy when Daniel Craig lumbers around as a secret agent (with or without the Rifftrax treatment). And I am a shameless fan of most pre-Rush Hour 2 Jackie Chan movies (especially Supercop).

Of course, I have my limits. I was horrified by 2006’s Crank, what with its blatant glorification of rape. And for all I care, Michael Bay and Shia LaBeouf can go straight to hell (preferably in an ironic display of awesome pyrotechnics). Nevertheless, when I noticed that The Expendables 2 had FINALLY become available for instant streaming on Netflix, it took less than two seconds for me to start the movie.

I didn’t expect a solid storyline, so I wasn’t disappointed when there was none. People don’t watch movies like these if they’re interested in a good story. They watch movies like these because they want to see what it looks like when Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis join Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham for a showdown with Jean-Claude Van Damme, with a dash of Chuck Norris thrown in for good measure.

In addition to the above-named stars, the movie features Jet Li, Terry Crews, Dolph Lundgren, and Randy Couture, who reprise their roles from the first movie. It also features some newcomers to the franchise (besides Van Damme and Norris): Scott Adkins, who has appeared with Van Damme in several films, and Chris Hemsworth’s brother, whom I prefer to call “Skinny Thor.”

 

The god of small but startling noises.

The god of small but startling noises.

 

Getting all these actors together presumably used up most of the film’s budget, which must be why the special effects are, at times, only a notch above what you would find in a SyFy original feature. In other words, there’s a lot of blood in this movie, but it looks pretty cartoonish.

The impressive cast list is also probably a major reason for why the plot is so terrible. It’s not just that there’s no room for character development (since there needs to be decent screen time for each of the film’s bazillion main characters). But if the central purpose of your movie is to unite as many big-name action stars onscreen as possible, you’re going to run into the problem of juggling a dozen or so extremely busy schedules. This is why Schwarzenegger had such a small role in the first film; it is presumably why Norris has such a small role here. And the end result is a story that is wonderfully absurd.

For instance, there is a scene where Norris shows up out of nowhere and saves the protagonists by single-handedly destroying a large team of heavily armed villains. Bear in mind, this is a character who has not previously been mentioned at any point. At first, you want to scream “DEUS EX MACHINA!” but then it becomes clear that the action scene was probably developed purely as a way of getting Norris into the movie in the first place. After saving all the good guys, Stallone invites him to join them in their mission, but he declines the offer solely on the grounds that “I work alone.” It’s okay though, he does show up at the end of the movie, and even stands next to Schwarzenegger for a moment (although it is hilariously clear that he was never on set with Willis).

But it’s okay, because not only does Chuck Norris kill lots of people, but he also makes a Chuck Norris joke. THAT’S WHY WE NEED HIM IN THE MOVIE, OKAY?

 

The TSA doesn't stop Chuck Norris....

The TSA doesn’t stop Chuck Norris….

 

... Chuck Norris stops the TSA.

… Chuck Norris stops the TSA.

 

Speaking of corny jokes, Schwarzenegger and Willis have fun exchanging each other’s most famous catchphrase, which I enjoyed, even if it did only magnify the insanity of the whole film. There’s even a Rambo joke! (GET IT???)

Let’s go back to the subject of feminism for a moment. Feminist critics of film and television have developed something called the Bechdel test, a test meant to measure gender bias in the media (although it doesn’t always work). In any case, in order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must (1) have at least two female characters (2) who speak to each other (3) about something other than a man. (You’d be surprised at how many movies fail.)

Now obviously, The Expendables 2 does not pass the Bechdel test. There is, after all, only one significant female character in the movie, and she implausibly falls in love with the mumbling Stallone, due to a mutual appreciation for motorcycles (and, I assume, a shared hatred for the English language). But it’s interesting to note that there are many conversations between the major male characters where most or all of what they talk about is their relationships with women. If there were ever such a thing as a reverse-Bechdel test, The Expendables 2 fails in a blaze of glory. I’m not sure if that’s progress, but it would certainly make for a good drinking game.

Another idea for a drinking game would be a shot for every time a bad guy misses when trying to shoot a good guy at close range in an open space. However, this one could lead to severe alcohol poisoning, so be careful.

 

They studied at the Storm Troopers Training Academy.

Those bad guys 30 feet in the background studied at the Storm Troopers Training Academy.

 

The opening action scene of the movie is strange for a number of reasons, but it contains one detail that, in my opinion, sums up the entire rationale behind movies like this. Schwarzenegger is feeling a bit emasculated in front of all of his guy friends. He is understandably embarrassed, and feeling vulnerable. So it’s not surprising that the first thing he does, upon regaining any of his power, is to angrily demand that someone hand him a huge gun. There’s a part of me that wants to say, “This movie is brilliant!” But truthfully, I’m not convinced that the people who created this scene understood its full irony.

That’s what you can expect to get out of The Expendables 2—a limited degree of goofy self-awareness mixed with a decent measure of cluelessness. The end result is a cocktail of corny (and sometimes offensive) dialogue, an abundance of over-the-top explosions, and a plot that consists of 98% recycled material.

But it’s all worth it to see Chuck Norris assisting the Planet Hollywood guys.

Or at least, I’m assuming that’s what he told them as he held them all at gunpoint and forced them to include him in the film.

—–

About the author:

Dan once discovered a portal into his own mind behind a filing cabinet in a New York City office building, and now resides in a realm where everyone looks like him and can only say “Marse-Kapr.” (It is, in fact, the only known realm where no one has problems pronouncing that name.) His favorite films include Adaptation, Life Is Beautiful, A Night at the Opera, The Truman Show, and Unforgiven.

The Films That Made Us — U-571

By Nathanael Griffis

Every film I’ve ever seen has had some personal impact; it is simply the degree of impact that differs. I would argue, that it is the point of something artistic, to have a personal impact. Art is meant to reach out to a viewer and affect them somehow. Quality does not necessarily lead to impact. Citizen Kane is one of the best films I have ever seen, but it does nothing for me personally. This does not diminish its value as art. It is simply to state that personal impact is just that, personal and not tied to quality. I love the film Troll 2  because of all the Friday nights I’ve spent sharing this film with friends, but it is undoubtedly one of the worst films ever made.

Still, one film has always stayed with throughout my life: U-571. This is by no means the best film I’ve seen, or even my favorite, but I’ll always love it for what it meant to me and what it still means to me. It was late April 2000 and I was on spring break. I had always liked films, but truth be told I was a bookworm and saw movies simply as entertainment. I liked Schwarzenegger movies, Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Monty Python, and that was about it. Movies with kissing were lame, stupid, and girly, and as such to be avoided. Basically, I was a teenage boy.

 

 

I saw U-571 in the theaters on opening weekend, which was unusual for me. I know you expect me to say I came out of the film changed, that my vision toward film or something was shaken, but the truth is U-571 is not that kind of film. What was important to me was that I went with my Dad and a friend of his who was visiting in town. This mattered to me greatly, because they let me choose and I trusted my instincts, which turned out to be good. We all enjoyed it. I remember my father’s friend and my father turning to me as we left:

“Good pick, Nate, that was one intense film. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time,” my father’s friend said.

“Yeah Nate, that was a good movie. I’m glad we saw it. You did a good job picking that one,” my father said.

Now sure, we could say this is nothing more than a clichéd response to liking a film. Where’s the depth right? Shouldn’t I be talking about a movie that resulted in a long three-hour conversation over coffee and left me a different person? No, sorry. This film matters more than most others, because I had chosen a film and people I respected enjoyed it. It lifted me up and made me realize that my opinion mattered and that I could contribute. For a child this is a profound moment; this is truly a moment when one finds an important aspect of one’s identity. It had little to do with the film, which I still think is fantastic and has some of the most intense scenes in film. It had everything to do with the idea that I could choose a good film.

How many times do we look at kids and discount their opinions, because they’re kids. Hey, it’s cute that they watch silly Disney Channel shows. We throw away what they like and neglect to even give anything from music, books, or movies that they enjoy proper consideration. It meant so much to me to know that my Dad respected me and thought I’d made a good decision. It made me feel like an adult. It made me realize I mattered. Teenagers’ opinions are brushed off and thought of as ridiculous fads (sometimes rightly), so much so that we sometimes see adolescence itself as a fad of sorts. We see it as a phase that a person just needs to get through until they matter and can start contributing.

U-571 made me want to love films more, but not because of its filmmaking prowess, the depth charges, Matthew McConaughey or Harvey Keitel’s acting, or that insane scene where McConaughey willingly sacrifices one of his men to save the rest. It was because I wanted that affirmation. Simply put, I wanted people to like me. I wanted my Dad to be proud of my choices. It seems trivial and if I look at it objectively it is, but I’m a person and people are subjective. I have since seen at least 100 more films that are better and have a strong impact on me. WALL-E reminds me of the amazing bond and value of love and friendship. Up in the Air spoke to me when I was in a time of personal struggle between being single or in a healthy relationship. A History of Violence made me reevaluate my ideas about violence in film and in life completely. A Beautiful Mind gave me hope in my own ability to conquer whatever challenge was set before me. Singin’ in the Rain is nothing short of good memories of my family and sheer elation on screen. Finding Neverland helped me address issues of imagination and reality and their relationship to mortality.

None of these matter more to me than the simple act of my father being proud of me.

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #6: “She says the jungle… it came alive and took him.”

By Tom Kapr

A long time ago, in a federated state far, far away, I began a countdown of the ten scariest movie aliens ever. Then my world turned a little bit sideways, and two months and two thousand miles later, I landed in Colorado. Now life has calmed some, so it’s time to turn back to the wonderful horrors of the silver screen with a film that caused one of the most heated debates ever on the Buried Cinema podcast. And though it still loses my Flickchart vote to Shaun of the Dead, here is number six on the countdown…. (You can read the list from the beginning here.)

Predator is a paradox. Written by brothers Jim and John Thomas (who went on to write a handful of other, poor-to-middling thrillers) and directed by John “Die Hard” McTiernan, Predator is one of those big, dumb, loud, vulgar, testosterone-fueled action flicks for which the late 80s are known. Machismo runs rampant and cheesy dialogue seeps from every seam, not least of which is that immortal line uttered by Jesse “The Body” Ventura, “I ain’t got time to bleed.” However, what makes Predator such a paradox is that it is also one of the coolest and most brilliant science fiction films ever. And it gave us one of cinema’s all-time great antagonists: the Predator himself (played by the seven-foot-two Kevin Peter Hall).

Other Predator aliens have gone on to battle everyone in film from Danny Glover to Adrien Brody to the xenomorphs from the Alien films–even Batman. But when it all began, it was one terrifying, unseen presence lurking in the Central American jungle, picking off platoon commandos one by one as easy as if it were swatting butterflies. As the line from the movie suggests, it was as if the jungle itself had become a sentient, hostile force. Eventually it came to one of the great climactic showdowns in cinema: Predator vs. Schwarzenegger. And when Schwarzenegger finally got the upper hand and saw the Predator up-close, personal, uncloaked, and unmasked, it turned out to be one of the most fearsome alien beings ever conceived–and one of the ugliest (though I’m sure he was very handsome to the ladies back on his home planet).

It’s true what they say, that a picture is worth a thousand words:

[Editor's note: I forgot to mention Stan Winston, who is responsible for the awesome design of the Predators and the special effects in the first two films, as well as many other memorable creatures in some of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Stan Winston, the world of the movies will never be the same without you.]

Next on the countdown: “Across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us….”

Lies, True Lies & Action Movies

by Steven Moore

James Cameron has a knack for making his hero’s escape from danger both fantastical and plausible. While Cameron’s True Lies is certainly a cheesy 90′s action movie, the worst decade for action in my opinion, it also has subtle moments of genius buried in the cinematography and choreography. The generic action scene when the hero narrowly escapes the giant fireball rushing mercilessly toward him doesn’t feel clichéd in Cameron’s movie because he fosters a suspension of disbelief (or believable impossibility, if you prefer). You, the viewer, know exactly how the hero got where he is and how he is getting away. There’s a flow to the bangs and booms. Everything about this film feels careful and calculated, a rare thing in the action movie world.

Schwarzenegger & Curtis in "True Lies"

The plot starts with Harry Tasker, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, living a double life as a spy, while his wife, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, lives blissfully unaware of her husband’s daily mortal danger. She believes him to be the boring businessman that he is in their suburban life together. She seeks adventure and excitement, which pushes her to flirt with another man. The flirtations lead to a series of events where, through the separate machinations of both our hero and the bad guys, Harry reveals all his secrets. In the process, Curtis transforms from housewife to co-spy so gradually and meticulously it seems natural for a middle-aged suburban working mom to become an international covert agent. Don’t get me wrong, this movie is silly, but it does silly with a master’s hand.

This is not a perfect movie by any means. The secret agent with an unwitting family is a generic enough theme that’s only been pulverized to death in the years since True Lies‘ release. Harry appears to be the typical homeric action star, but he has no problem blurring ethical boundaries, like hiring his unwitting wife to be his prostitute and making her think she is performing a striptease for a complete stranger. There are serious moral questions here that our hero just skates right past without so much as a “hmm?” I see some marriage counseling in their future. Although this is probably his finest performance, Arnold’s acting still boils down to frequent grunts and shouts punctuated by some painfully enunciated sentences. The plot is standard fare with few surprising reveals and the villains are borderline offensive Arabic stereotypes.

Yet, this movie remains entertaining after all these years. Why? All media critics wrestle with the problem of entertainment versus depth. All critics, and I would hope most moviegoers, need a certain amount of depth from their films, regardless of entertainment value. Entertainment is fleeting without something more that speaks to the human experience, and movies that forget that are often labeled forgettable. Forgettable movies aren’t bad; they just make no impact other than to entertain for a couple hours. You rarely go back and watch them a second time.

However, within the action genre a movie can be pure spectacle and still worth watching again and again for that spectacle alone, which is why I dislike action movies obviously. I might even say I avoid action movies, but only because there’s a part of me that loves action movies so much. That ancient reptilian part of my brain wants nothing more from a film than ‘splosions, big guns, and a pretty girl–preferably, a pretty girl with a big gun causing a ‘splosion. And that’s all I need. No questions about life or human existence or our existential need for connection, just boom, bang, and wow. So, when an action movie does more than spectacle, it becomes something special. It satisfies both sides of my brain, which is what the best movies achieve. Die Hard, El Mariachi, and Casino Royale all transcend the Action genre by delivering characters who struggle with the human experience all while getting pretty girls, firing lots of guns, and making big ‘splosions. Unfortunately, this is so rare in the action genre that I’ve lost faith.

(From left:) Bruce Willis as John McClane in "Die Hard" (1988); Carlos Gallardo as "El Mariachi" (1992); Daniel Craig as James Bond 007 in "Casino Royale" (2006)

True Lies is more than a one night stand with the reptilian brain. It doesn’t quite reach the same level as the previously mentioned films, but it is a fun ride, and it provides a technical insight that’s more than just spectacle. That is to say, it does spectacle in a special way, which placates my snobbier sensibilities. Too bad it’s an action movie.

–Steven Moore

A Year of Movies

1. True Lies (1994)

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Tia Carrere, Eliza Dushku, Grant Heslov, Art Malik, Bill Paxton, Charlton Heston.

Saturday, January 1, 02:00.

Two hours since 2011 rolled over the Atlantic and hit the East Coast, and the party’s over. I’m at Steve’s house. We decide to inaugurate the new year by–what else?–watching a movie. We pick True Lies, a favorite that I’ve seen many times since high school but never in widescreen. Steve hasn’t seen it since it came out in 1994. When it’s over, I ask Steve, “What did you think of it this time?” His response: “It’s definitely a 90s movie.” He’s right: The style, the plot mechanics, the one-liners, Schwarzenegger’s obvious stunt double, the Arab terrorists (no more than caricatures). On top of that, nearly every pop culture reference immediately dates it as a mid-90s flick. And I definitely noticed a lot more flaws this time. Still, Cameron is a master of technical films like this, and his sense of control over action scene is apparent. This viewing moved True Lies down in my estimation, convincing me it is one of Cameron’s weakest films. When you think about it relatively, though, Cameron’s weakest films are still much better than the average science fiction or action film, and True Lies still has some of the most impressive action scenes in the history of action films. I may not watch it in its entirety again for a long time, but True Lies remains a 90s action favorite of mine–a genre and time period that, I must admit, I am a huge sucker for. Netflix rating: 4/5 stars. IMDb rating: 8/10. Flickchart rank: 612/2169 (Top 1000). Learn more about the movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111503/

–Tom Kapr

James Cameron, Part I: An Overview of the Career of a Visual Effects Auteur

By Nathanael Griffis

With the re-release of Avatar into theaters this past summer, to the simultaneous groans and cheers of fans and critics alike, I found myself thinking about James Cameron. Perhaps he forces me to think about him by loftily describing his personal achievements as world-shaking. The hubris of the artist, though, is not enough to retract my fascination. To some this might feel too late, Avatar was last Christmas, but I believe distance from the film will lend itself to more honest criticism. And so, I want to take a look Cameron’s influence on visual effects throughout his earlier work and implications of such on the resurgence of 3D technology in film.

James Cameron is not exactly a prolific filmmaker–although not as slow as, say, Terrence Malick. Still, Cameron’s films wield such influence that it is worth one’s time to look at each. It all started with The Terminator, about as good a debut as one can have. Utilizing Harryhausen-esque stop-motion, makeup courtesy of Stan Winston, and a perfect combination of models and stuntwork to create the final robot, Cameron delivered chilling action scenes. (Luckily for him, a robot jostling forward in stop-motion looks natural.)

With Aliens, which some content is an improvement over Ridley Scott’s original Alien, Cameron showed a mastery of physical effects. He did simple things, like turning the camera upside-down to make the aliens appear to climb across the ceiling. Actual weather was used on massive, detailed models. Add all that to the magnum opus of expert puppeteer work and foreground miniatures in the final battle with the alien queen. These amazing special effects are perfectly combined with beam- and film-splitting and rear projection.

Cameron’s early work demonstrated a penchant for action choreography that arguably will never be matched, especially in Terminator 2. But before we reach that monumental film, let us not forget The Abyss. Cameron showed us the wonder of the world around us and the mysteries it could hold in this tense underwater thriller. The film developed new facial recognition techniques for the pseudopod sequence that revolutionized CGI (computer graphics imaging) and paved the way for future effects auteurs, especially Peter Jackson and his Gollum. The film also showed that Cameron hadn’t yet abandoned practical effects. He built an entire underwater set in an unused nuclear reactor and accomplished underwater shots that have never been re-attempted in over 20 years.

Terminator 2 was next and and provided a visual feast for the eyes both in terms of physical stuntwork and CGI effects. The film’s numerous chase and fight scenes flawlessly blended Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance with a CGI liquid terminator, countless explosions (actually, you could probably count them), and excellent makeup from Stan Winston. The film still stands as one of the best uses of CGI and doesn’t merely rival modern techniques but in many cases shames them.

Titanic is a similar example of physical and CGI effects perfectly combined. The sinking cruise ship is amazing to watch, as CGI people tumble off and plummet into the sea below. It is equally engaging as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet race through the sinking ship with hundreds of gallons of water bursting through elevators and unsealed shafts.

On the whole, Cameron has most assuredly changed the landscape of film and visual effects. He’s shown a talent for taking action-thrillers and elevating them to a finer level of art through a meticulous concern for the visual. His films have not been overtly resonant thematically, with the exception of Titanic, but they resonate on some other level inside us. It’s good entertainment; it’s intrinsic quality; it’s viewing an exciting, beautiful image; it’s a dedication to accomplishing the impossible. In these, Cameron is a master.

The question remains, though: Does Avatar improve or impair an already amazing filmography?

–Nathanael Griffis