Dredd by Pete Travis

Dredd by Pete Travis

In a violent, futuristic city where the police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner, Judge Dredd (played by Karl Urban) teams with new trainee Judge Anderson (played by Olivia Thirlby) to take down a gang that deals the reality-altering drug, SLO-MO.

It is an unfortunate coincidence that Dredd is correlated to The Raid: Redemption because they have similar setups (my short review of The Raid: Redemption here). Fortunately, I saw The Raid: Redemption earlier in the summer of 2012 and missed Dredd in theaters, as a result I have enough time in between the two films to mentally separate them. Being unfamiliar with the source material, what I actually ended up comparing Dredd was the 1996 Slyvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd. It’s a sci-fi movie that I grew up on and entertained me (however Demolition Man is the superior sci-fi Slvyester Stallone movie). It’s famously criticized because Sylvester Stallone, at the behest of the producers, plays the latter two-thirds of the film with his helmet off. Judge Dredd in the comics, never takes off his helmet. I never knew what the big deal was with the insistance that the Judge Dredd character must keep his helmet on… till I saw Dredd.

Judge Dredd is not a character as more a representation of pure black-and-white law taken to the extreme. That’s why he’s meant to be faceless. Taking off his mask and trying to find the human backstory behind that character completely shatters what he thematically represents. Yes, I know I sound stupid right now. However, a movie with Judge Dredd alone just shooting criminals would have been boring. The filmmakers understand this, so they have placed in a buddy cop dynamic into the film with the Judge Anderson character. She is more human and more dimensional as a character, and set as a juxtaposition to the stoic Dredd. It can even be argued that the movie is Judge Anderson’s story. Both characters had a good working chemistry and the film deeply benefits from their buddy dynamic as it provides something human enough for me to hang onto between the action scenes.

As Judge Dredd, Karl Urban manages to communicate a lot under a helmet and has a firm grasp of the material. Playing a character who is that extreme can easily fall into parody very quickly (there are many Youtube videos parodying Stallone’s delivery “I’m the lawwwwww!!!!!”) and Urban doesn’t fall into that. Lena Headey manages to be cold and scary without being cartoonish as the film’s villain Ma-Ma. The film is over-the-top but there’s no ‘wink wink’, everybody just “is” the character they’re playing.

Slow motion in films have been overdone and viewers have grown used to it now. The way to keep slow motion fresh is to incorporate it into the story. Having a drug that slows down your perception of time is arguably the most blatant way to do this. But you know what? It works! It seems fresh and they take the Slo-Mo drug as a story device and take it to creative places. The films has fun action set pieces. The next set piece tops the last and it moves fast enough for you to ever really ponder about the satirical tones.

Dredd  is fun and made by a team that understands and loves the material. Their goals with this movie were simple but they accomplish them. It makes me think, as proven by the 1995 film, that perhaps the Judge Dredd property is not meant to be adapted into a vehicle for a big name star. The dark humor combined with ultra-violent tone of it just registers as something kitschier that will fare better for a smaller audience. No one’s going to take their whole family to see this movie but more likely a group of guys will cackle over it with a case of beers in their apartment.

For the people that want to see Dredd, will get it and enjoy it. For the people who don’t care that much may just dismiss it as being a lesser version of The Raid: Redemption. I’m not going to get on that bandwagon, Dredd deserves better than simply writing it off like that.

The Expendables 2 by Simon West

The Expendables 2 by Simon West

The Expendables undertake a seemingly simple mission that evolves into a quest for revenge against Jean Vilain, a rival mercenary who has murdered one of their own, and who threatens the world with a deadly weapon.

I enjoyed the first Expendables movie. It was great fun. It was very thin on story terms but the fact that all those action stars grouped together made it a fun guilty pleasure. When it wasn’t delivering action scenes, it was giving male banter, which I have a very big soft spot for. Even though I liked it, I would never recommend The Expendables to somebody else. I assume other people excited for the first Expendables movie would already rushed to see it. People going to see The Expendables coming out disappointed complaining about mindless action only have themselves to blame, right?

No, I have been proven wrong.

The Expendables 2 is bigger in scale and budget, but it’s not a better movie than the first.  The writing is fairly lazy, much lazier than the first movie. It relies too heavily that the audience is coming in with pre-existing knowledge of the 80’s and 90’s action era. There’s too much of a void that the audience needs to fill in their own heads. There’s no sense of who these characters are, instead we are meant to supplant them with their action hero personas.

One thing that really took me out was I was becoming very aware of the production schedule of the movie from seeing which actor was onscreen at different points throughout the story. I was disappointed how little Jet Li was in it, he may as well have just said no to reprising his part. I knew they shot his portion of the film in Hong Kong. The film was not interesting enough to take me away from that thought.

There’s some really key about henchmen in action movies that I was always want to bring up. There’s this one gag in the first Austin Powers movie where a henchman in Dr. Evil’s lair dies, and then we got a cut scene where there’s a birthday party in a suburban house where the family members of that henchman are told that the henchman is dead. Suffice to say, the family’s day is ruined. In The Expendables 2, as little as there already is that clearly establishes the enemy, we’re never really clearly see visually who these henchmen are. In the action scenes, the camera is focused on showing the heroes delivering the blows. This shifts how the audience experiences the fight because we’re watching the action movie star firing a huge weapon as opposed to the character in the movie shooting a henchmen to get over an obstacle in the story. There’s a pornographic sensibility within that hurts the film. At the finale, it gets to a Last Action Hero level of ridiculous self-parody, as there is a “line-o-rama” sequence where the heroes take turns sputtering their famous action catchphrases in a row. I laughed, but it was a cheap one-off laugh.

The fight between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone was pretty disappointing. It wouldn’t even have been hard to do. Only if there were more kicks… there’s really no excuse for this. That’s what I learned from watching The Expendables 2: there’s “dumb fun” ,which I would define as the first Expendables movie, and then there’s “way-too-dumb”, which is its sequel.

On a side note, Arnold Schwarzenegger can still deliver lines. Watching Schwarzenegger on screen really made me think about what a movie star he was and how odd that he is a movie star. It was a combination of the kitschy taste of the 80’s combined with the audience loving the presence of this hulking Austrian muscle man. Think about it, we do not think of him as a trained thespian and in his 80’s films we’re never really asked to buy him as anything but Arnold Schwarzenegger. Usually the things that are happening in his films are pretty far-fetched and insane, whether it’s him playing a machine, shooting an alligator in the face or teaching kindergarten. But whatever it was, we let it slide as an audience, he ultimately remains a very watchable screen presence. He’s also hilarious because he’s given these crazy lines to say and part of the fun is watching him deliver them with his thick Austrian accent.

Call me crazy, but I do not see a new action star rising to stardom the same way in 2012. That thought alone makes me miss the 80’s action era more than what The Expendables 2 managed to evoke. I really look forward to Schwarzenegger’s cinematic return.

NOTE: I’ve been away for a while. The movie I worked on is now officially in the can. It’s in post-production now and my part is currently over. I’ve drafted a lot of reviews that I intend to finish. So bear with me as I catch up.

Red State by Kevin Smith

Red State by Kevin Smith

A group of teens receive an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter fundamentalists with a much more sinister agenda.

I used to be a Kevin Smith fan. I liked all his work up till Clerks 2. I would look up funny clips of his speeches and occasionally read his blog. Zack and Miri Make A Porno made me laugh but it was not something I could recommend to somebody else. I thought Cop Out was one big juicy raspberry but it was not the reason why I do not care for his work anymore. The real reason is because he’s gotten so whiny these couple of years it’s just a turn-off listening to him talk about anything these days. As someone who wants to work in the film in industry, I could not empathize with his view of film critics and/or Hollywood politics. I purely see those as good problems to have at this point. I totally understand and respect that he is probably in a different stage in life than me but I just cannot help it. Sorry.  On with the review…

Michael Parks is really good and brings a muted creepiness as Reverend Abin Cooper, but he needs subtitles. I understood Jeff Bridges in True Grit word for word and still found Parks’ drawl scratchy delivery difficult at times. Melissa Leo goes over-the-top. That’s all I have to say about the acting.

Red State titters between being a satire, a horror film and a late night B action movie. All three genres end up competing against each other. The horror was not horrific enough; it’s watered down once the action kicks in. That’s a problem because it’s satiric metaphors are never fully physicalized and they end up being stated through dialogue. The violence is meant to be taken seriously but there’s a scene involving a cop receiving a head shot outside Abin Cooper’s house that looked  too funny to be shocking. At the final dialogue set piece with Agent Joseph Keenan (played by John Goodman), it seems like the film is giving you permission to laugh at what’s going on, but I was not sure if I was supposed to. What floats to the surface after all this genre clashing is the message of the film, which seems too on-the-nose. After watching Red State, I could not recall a specific scene or any characters (besides Michael Parks) that were memorable. What I can tell you is what Smith thinks is wrong with America.

It’s nice to see Kevin Smith write in a different voice and it’s too bad he claims to have only one more movie in him before quitting as a filmmaker (I do not believe this at all). I assume his cinematographer Dave Klein must be thrilled to finally be able to pan the camera, do handheld and use a crane shot. As he admits, he’s not the strongest director in the world. Horror is a visual medium and he would probably benefit in a genre that is more based on writing. But you know what? It’s a new direction! It’s something new from him. So again, I must go back to … I don’t know what the hell he is being so whiny about!

A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is something very cinematic about watching the creation of something. In A Dangerous Method, we see the beginnings of psychoanalysis and the intellectual debate about the approach to the mind. Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) treats Sabina Spielrein (played by Kiera Knightley), whom eventually becomes his assistant and one of the first female psychoanalysts. They begin a love affair, that breaks the boundaries of their doctor-patient relationship and threatens Jung’s family and career. Adding oil to the fire is the presence of Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen), of whom Jung seeks approval from but ultimately their relationship turns turbulent as they differ on views of sexuality and religion.

First of all, I liked the 2 lead performances. Michael Fassbender is great as Carl Jung. Viggo Mortensen brings true gravitas to Sigmund Freud, and we experience how Carl Jung is intimidated by his presence. Viggo is our generation’s Robert De Niro. He’s come a long way as an Omish dude sitting at the back of a carriage in Witness. Some actors are good at creating a character internally (i.e. Robert De Niro is always Robert De Niro but is able to create a character)and some actors are good at physicalizing a character (i.e. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka). Viggo Mortensen is both. Any role Viggo is in, he truly transforms into his roles inside-out and always creates a presence to be marveled.

On the issue of Kiera Knightley convulsing and making spastic movements… given that it is a factually-accurate portrayal of mental distress, she’s performing the psychosis as if she were in a theatrical play. She has yet to learn how to use a close-up on film. In my opinion, it’s not her fault. The director should have cut around her or toned her actions down. Watching her face as she does them, it feels very performed. I think less is more in this case and this was somewhat of a miscalculation on Cronenberg’s part. However, Knightley does fares better in the latter half of the movie.

I can see why David Cronenberg was attracted to do this material. There is a mental violence underneath the relationships between Freud, Jung and Spielrein. At times it is about manipulation, most of the time, it is all about power. The main problem is the mental violence is not violent enough. That may be because these are true events with real-life historical figures. You end up with a dramatic replay of historical events. There is no prominent theme underneath that does not say anything about life that you can take away from.

Is it worth seeing for the performances? Not really. It would also require an interest in the foundations of psychoanalysis (which I do have an interest in) as well. But even with that, that’s still pushing it because there is nothing more beneath it’s surface to offer. In the end, I’m glad I saw it but A Dangerous Method is a bit unremarkable.

Warrior by Gavin O’Connor

Warrior (2011 film)

Warrior by Gavin O’Connor

I have a confession to make: I love martial arts. I love martial arts movies. There’s nothing more primal than watching two people beating the shit out of each other. Warrior is a movie that understands this but earns that fun legitimately through the three lead performances. It works on these two levels.

Joel Edgerton brings genuine goodness to the film. His character Brendan Conlon is formerly-failed MMA fighter turned school teacher, the bank is taking his house and now he is fighting in the cage to keep his family together. And through being motivated by family, he becomes a better fighter. You root for him. You want him to win.

I’ve never seen Nick Nolte so raw and completely naked playing this broken old man trying to repair his regrets. The Nick Nolte-isms do not shortcut him. He’s earned that Oscar nomination, though I don’t think he’ll win this year.

Here’s why I think Tom Hardy is a great actor: he acts with his entire body. No, I’m not talking about his deltoids (though “Tom Hardy’s deltoids” completely earn another independent credit in this movie). It’s an fine-tuned, equally internal and external performance. Notice the way he grunts, the weight in his walk, how he speaks under his breath and the way he glares his eyes like he’s going to lose it any second. He’s not even human in this movie. He is a mythic beast. Let’s just say, the bat will be broken.

The fights themselves are exciting to watch because of four aesthetic reasons, 1) The drama works. We care. 2) The actors are doing it. The camera doesn’t do anything to hide a stuntman. 3) The fights happen in film time, not real time. They’re editing on dramatic beats. They’re not sticking to how real MMA fights play out, which most of the time is people hugging each other on the ground. (If you’ve seen Never Back Down, you know what I’m talking about.) They’re presented in a realistic fashion with the boring parts omitted. 4) You feel the pain of these fights. On a side note, I also enjoyed the dual training montage sequence. They’re acknowledging the origin of the DNA strain (uh.. Rocky, anybody?) and trying to evolve it into something of their own. I appreciated that.

This was probably the most fun I’ve had watching a movie this year. I have a soft spot for it.

That said, I’m a little jealous that Joel Edgerton pulled off a flying armbar. That took me months!