Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Editorial: The Expendables

This is the kind of project that I dreamt of as a young man, when I realized how legendary the action movie heroes of the 80's and 90's truly were and the magic they brought to the screen. It didn't matter if the plot was paper-thin, the characters hopelessly one-dimensional; the men who starred in those films were gods of the silver screen, and machine guns and karate chops were their thunderbolts. I wrote an article about an event like The Expendables in early 2003 for The Devil's Advocate, my high school newspaper (if anybody has that issue, scan it and send it my way). I recall writing that there needs to be an action movie of epic proportions, one to stand atop all other action films - joining the likes of Schwarzeneggar, Stallone, Seagal, Van Damme, and others into the biggest, baddest, most explosion-filled movie in the history of the world. I was youthful and full of hyperbole - but who knew that article would turn out to be quasi-prophetic?

For those of you who don't have your finger on the pulse of the modern action film, The Expendables is Sylvester Stallone's next film: a story of an elite unit of soldiers as they make their way to South America to overthrow a ruthless dictator. Sure, that plot sounds like 40 other films - but the significant thing about the movie is the cast that he has managed to acquire. As it stands today, the superstar cast consists of Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Danny Trejo, Mickey Rourke, Forest Whitaker, and Randy Couture.

I'm going to give you a second to let that sink in. I think even those of us who knew about that cast need to go back and re-read it. I think we take for granted the awesomeness of reading those names in the same sentence. They are going to star in the same movie.

An action movie.

Written by, directed by, and starring Sylvester Stallone.

This is the end-all-be-all of action juggernauts, where the most badass cast ever assembled for this type of movie will gather to wreak cinematic havoc on anything in their path.

The guys over at RopeOfSilicon posted an interesting article this morning about the dawn of "Obamatainment" after the depressing movies of the Bush Administration. They cite Slumdog Millionaire's Best Picture win at the Oscars as the sign that the national subconscious has been flipped. Last year's winner, No Country For Old Men, was a hopelessly bleak metaphor for 2007's emotions - this year, a movie I reviewed as "a triumphant celebration of life and destiny" took home the top prize. You can see the differences already.

I'm thinking The Expendables will be a remnant of the kinds of movies released over the past eight years - but really the past 30 years, when you think about it. The release date of 2010 will give us enough time to absorb the frilly musicals, remakes, and fodder that are being pushed into production and then blow our faces off when it rips theater doors off their hinges to remind us what action films are supposed to look like. Will we ever see anything else like it after it has left it's undeniable mark on the cinematic landscape? Yes, we'll have stepping stones to keep us above water until we get there (Crank 2: High Voltage, I'm looking at you), but I honestly don't know if we will ever get to see anything like The Expendables after its release.

To me, it seems like Stallone's last stand: something he's been wanting to do for years, but only after the resurgence of his Rocky and Rambo characters (popular 30 years ago, I might add) does he feel the timing is right to make this kind of movie again. You can't help but look at Stallone's age - he's 62 right now, 63 in July - as a factor here. I watched the most recent installment of the Rambo franchise shocked at the unexpected amount of violence from a dude this old. I know it's freakin' Rambo, but I still didn't foresee the amount of carnage inflicted on those Burmese soldiers. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with making a film like this as you get older - in fact, just the opposite. I think this will be great for Stallone and his career. I'm sure the box office receipts are going to be through the roof, and maybe this will allow him the freedom to finally make some of his other passion projects (like that Edgar Allen Poe biopic he's been working on for years). I look at this as Sly's equivalent to Eastwood's Unforgiven, and hope that it can reach the same quality, if in completely different filmic realm altogether. It's not a coincidence that Eastwood was a spry 62 years old when his 1992 film won Best Picture. Actually, I think that's a perfect example of a coincidence. Regardless...

The casting process for this film is even more interesting than who is currently signed on. Jean Claude Van Damme turned down a role, apparently citing Stallone's lack of care for the script and refusal to give information about Van Damme's potential character as the reason. I find this to be complete and utter horse crap - there is no way that Sly would tell him not to worry about the characters and concentrate on the money he would be making. That's just not something Stallone would say. He has yet to publically respond to Van Damme's comments, who had no problem blabbing to everyone who would listen about how great he is because he took the moral high road and turned this movie down. Nice move, JCVD - you're going to regret that for the rest of your life. A recent source informed me that Welsey Snipes was offered UFC fighter Randy Couture's part, but couldn't accept because he's not allowed to leave the country (if you'll recall, he had a little problem with tax evasion a while back). Man, that would have been awesome to see those two back together years after Demolition Man. That's what you get when you break the law, Snipes. Stallone would know. He IS the law.

Some may view this as Stallone's "handing off the reins" to the next generation. F that noise - he's jumping in headfirst. He's not done yet, and he wants everyone to know it. Why else do you think he's doing the writing and directing? He doesn't want to passively back down and pass the torch - that's not in his vocabulary. If he's going down (again, I don't think this means the end of his career, but instead a launch pad), he wants to go down in a blaze of gunfire surrounded by his old movie buddies and some younger cats who now kick just as much ass as he did back in the day.

I feel like this film has the potential to be Stallone's magnum opus - the one he will be remembered for even above Rambo and Rocky. If The Expendables lands anywhere close to the plateaus I hope it will reach, this movie could easily become an instant classic and a defining moment in the history of action films. It already has done enough to guarantee my place in a theater on opening day, even if every trailer for it that comes out sucks beyond belief. I can't believe that these people would all agree to do this project if there wasn't some merit behind it, and if it's half as entertaining as Rambo, then we all should be in for a good time to say the least. 2010 can't come soon enough. Until next time...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Podcast - "Movies With Bob and Phil"

We've found our official podcast here at Ben's Movie Reviews. Everyone else seems to have a podcast, so we're jumping on that as well.

A couple of our Northern friends, Brooklyn Bob and Staten Island Phil, review movies up in New York and we have decided to host their podcast here at this site. Their first entry can be found at, and you can reach them directly through e-mail at

Their first podcast includes a review of the Chris Evans/Dakota Fanning film Push, after about three minutes of introduction from the duo. Leave comments either here or in their e-mail inbox - they're always looking for suggestions for what to watch next. Until next time...

It's Baaaaaaaack!

You asked for it and now you've got it. (Well, one of you asked for it, anyway.) March Madness is back!

Longtime readers will remember the epic March of 2007, in which I reviewed every film I saw during the course of the month. In total, I wrote fifteen reviews (with an extra three from guest authors) and a legacy of awesomeness was etched into the archives of this site.

So I'm bringing it back. If you guys have any suggestions on films I should watch during the month, hit me up in the comment section. If they sound like something I would legitimately enjoy (or enjoy destroying in review form), I'll make my best efforts to check them out. Do keep in mind that I work over 40 hours a week at a real job, though - so I'm sure this event won't quite reach the legendary proportions it did last time around. And I'm putting a call out to all my guest authors - if you guys have something, throw it down in March and let's make that month wish it never heard of this site. Until next time...

IMPORTANT NOTE: It must be said that Tyler Branz, editor in chief of The Solar Sentinel, provides me with every banner you see on this site, including the one for this post and the one at the title banner top of this page. Conversely, I do most of the Photoshop work for both of our sites - so if either of us forgets to give credit where it is due, apologies all around.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Spotlight: Michael Bay

Summer is approaching, and you know what that means - more explosions from Michael freakin' Bay. The relatively young director has become synonymous with "summer blockbuster" over a short career and has earned MASSIVE numbers of online haters along the way. I've said many times that I am a fan of his work, and I've defended him from the legions of people who inaccurately label him as a "hack" director. (For the record, Brett Ratner is the other...ahem...high profile director who gets as much sh*t as Bay from the online community. They actually have a legitimate case with Ratner, since none of his films have a signature style, flair, or anything that would make them stand out from other generic movies, ala the definition of a hack. Bay, on the other hand - he makes damn sure you know you're watching a Michael Bay movie.)

This post has been a long time coming for a couple reasons. One - I wanted to display my support for the guy and make a definitive post about it so I don't have to mention it again. Two - Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is coming out in a few months and a lot of people are going to see it, regardless of whether they like Bay or not. Three - I find it fascinating that he has the ability to polarize people so heavily with his films. We'll get to that in a second - first, let's take a look at this new featurette on Transformers 2 thanks to MTV.

Unbelievable! I wasn't really impressed with the trailers or Super Bowl ads for this movie, but that featurette skyrocketed my interest faster than Bay can say "awesome." Are you guys as pumped at that as I am?

The thing about Michael Bay I like the most is the persona he has crafted for himself. He's the prototypical American male, making movies for people just like him. Yes, he comes off as kind of a douche. But at least he has a personality. Click that "awesome" link above and you'll see exactly how highly he thinks of himself. The best part is that he realizes that he's ridiculous and isn't averse to making fun of himself, which is highly appreciated by this viewer. This guy made a pretty humorous video parody that's worth checking out. And even though I hate Twitter (by that I mean I really don't understand its purpose - why do people care what you do every 40 seconds?), somebody had enough gumption to create a fake Michael Bay account and post as if he was the boom-happy director. Some other Bay-doppelganger created a fake script of The Dark Knight (funny stuff). Even Robot Chicken gets in on the action.

Let's get on to his filmography. From a lowly production assistant (hey, that's what I do!) on the 1980's television show "Night Court" to directing a couple music videos and a Playboy centerfold production, Bay slowly moved his way up to his first big time directing gig and hasn't looked back since.

Bad Boys, 1995
Starring: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence
Decent, but he wasn't exactly breaking new ground with this one. I've seen it a couple times, and I barely remember it. Notable more for launching Will Smith's mainstream action movie career than Bay's directing, it was enough to get MB a second directing job - and that's all he needed.

The Rock, 1996
Starring: Sean Connery, Nicholas Cage
Basically Die Hard in a prison, The Rock was a fantastic action movie that really allowed Bay to showcase his penchant for over-the-top ridiculousness. That car chase scene in San Fran was out of control. Bay actually coaxed good performances out of his lead roles in this movie, too - something that generally goes by the wayside in favor of super slow motion shots. It helps when you're working with some of the best - Ed Harris, Connery, and Cage before he was a joke.

Armageddon, 1998
Starring: Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler
I already covered this one in the Spotlight on JJ Abrams a couple months ago, but suffice it to say that this movie is pretty awesome. Here's a little-seen blooper reel from the Criterion Collection release of the film.

Pearl Harbor, 2001
Starring: Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett

Bad Boys II, 2003
Starring: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence
Much better than the first film. Funnier, sleeker, and infused with the Bay-style that he had the chance to cultivate over the past few movies. That last scene where they drive the Hummer down the village hill is monstrously stupid, but you just can't take your eyes off it.

The Island, 2005
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Ewan McGregor
While most people don't really care for this one, I think it's Bay's finest work so far. It goes deeper than his typical action movie but still delivers all the high-action fireworks we've come to expect. Plus, ScarJo is at her absolute hottest here.

Transformers, 2007
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox
I really enjoyed this, despite not being a fan of the animated show when I was a kid. As I said in my review when it first came out - I've never seen as much debris in one movie before.

Those are just movies that he's directed. Bay has actually become a producer for some of his films and co-created Platinum Dunes, the horror-remake production company responsible for new versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, Friday The 13th, the upcoming Nightmare on Elm Street, and the hey-this-actually-sounds-interesting Fiasco Heights. I'm going to attribute some of Bay's success to solid working relationships with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, two of my favorite writer/producers in the industry who coincidentally work with JJ Abrams on a regular basis.

That'll do it for Bay's spotlight. I'm not going to take this time to give thorough analyzation to anything that he's done (I'll leave that for other people, or maybe myself at a later date), but I wanted to kind of summarize some of his work and gather all of the funny Michael Bay-hater material out there into one place for you guys. Until next time...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My Top 10 of 2008 (Finally)

Yes, I know it's already halfway through February. But it took me a while to see all the movies that I had a desire to see before I made this list. For your information, I completely skipped Benjamin Button, The Reader, and Milk - so while they may be Oscar favorites, I think they all looked fairly boring. You want to read what made my cut? The answer lies below...

10. Cassandra's Dream - This Woody Allen flick captured my attention from the very beginning and held it the entire way through. With great performances by Ewan McGregor, Colin Farrell, and Tom Wilkinson, this one earned its way past some solid movies to make it onto this list.

9. Rambo - The triumphant return of Stallone to the big screen after Rocky Balboa was worth the wait for Rambo fans. This installment in the franchise was ridiculously light on plot, but holy-crap heavy on the action. I've never seen so much graphic violence in a movie that doesn't feature massive army battles against each other, ala Braveheart and Lord of the Rings.

8. WALL*E - Pixar's animated flick was a great mix of social commentary and charming love story. If you haven't seen this yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. I was hesitant at first, but as you can tell, it was good enough to hold down the ocho slot.

7. Speed Racer - Yes, I am one of about four people who actually enjoyed this. I thought the Wachowski's did a great job with it, and the casting was admirable all the way around. A fun movie that dazzles with some ridiculous special effects.

6. Gran Torino - Eastwood's supposed final acting performance is one for the history books, capping off a phenomenal career for one of the few remaining living legends of Hollywood. Sure, the movie has its problems (bad acting from everyone else, pacing issues, etc), but all that falls to the wayside as we see Clint snarl and grunt his way through this movie as the racist war vet Walt Kowalski.

5. In Bruges - I said it before, and I'll reiterate: I've never seen a movie like In Bruges before. In a world where Candy Land, Ouiji Board, Monopoly, and Stretch Armstrong toys and board games are in production for major releases, the originality that In Bruges brought to the screen was amazingly refreshing and gives me hope in the industry yet. Colin Farrell delivers what I think is his best performance so far in his career.

4. Iron Man - 2008 was RDJ's year, and most people won't forget it any time soon. The comeback kid nearly stole the summer as the Marvel superhero, but it was the time when he was Tony Stark on screen that was most enjoyable to me. A great film with a talented supporting cast (Howard, Bridges, Paltrow) and a big hit for director Jon Favreau. Here's hoping the upcoming sequel is more "X2" and less "Punisher: War Zone."

3. Cloverfield - I freaking love this movie. I can't tell you how excited I was when I first read it, but you can go back and re-read my review of it to get a little sense of how much it impacted me on my first viewing. I've seen it one or two times since, and it still is as fantastic as the first time around. One of the best online marketing campaigns I've ever witnessed, great buzz going in, and a surprisingly successful January release with a cast of unknowns. Please don't make a sequel (it better be amazing if you do).

2. The Dark Knight - I was just thinking about this movie today, actually. A beacon of light and the lighthouse which guides all future comic-book films, The Dark Knight was a magnificent achievement that runs slightly long but you still don't want it to end.

1. Slumdog Millionaire - It wasn't even a contest. Just as Wristcutters firmly placed itself atop my list of 2007, Slumdog jumped to the number one slot and couldn't be tipped. The joy and exhuberance with which this film was shot and acted was amazing to watch, and the script was solid and (most importantly) original. Please go see it if you haven't yet - if you have a soul, you won't regret it.

There were some other flicks that I enjoyed in 2008, but the ones that made the list won the battle in the end. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Quarantine, The Wrestler, Appaloosa, Revolutionary Road, Pride and Glory, Eagle Eye, and some others were all runners up but couldn't quite break out. What were some of your favorites? Hit me up in the comment section. Until next time...

Sunday, February 8, 2009

2 Fast 2 Furious

The problems with 2 Fast 2 Furious begin with the title and trickle down from there. The movie isn't nearly as fun as it should/could be, and what little originality and passion the first film displayed is stifled here by a new director, new cast, and writers who were clearly just trying to cash in on the unexpected success of a new trend.

2 Fast 2 Furious
Director: John Singleton
Starring: Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Devon Aoki, Eva Mendes

Don't get me wrong - John Singleton has done some quality stuff in his career. He was the youngest director nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture at age 23 for his debut film Boyz N The Hood (which I've never seen). But I'm thinking primarily of Four Brothers, the 2004 Mark Wahlberg flick he directed, and Hustle and Flow, which he financed with director Craig Brewer. It seems to me like he suffered from the same greed of the writers when it came to this project - trying to cash in on a franchise before it completely bites the dust. Singleton tries to get flashy on occasion and flips the camera upside down multiple times throughout this movie, but it just ends up being annoying instead of cool. The rest of it (dialogue, street races, everything) is done without an ounce of originality - almost like a Brett Ratner movie. Everything is very straightforward and expected. The style from the first film has been sapped dry. I know we shouldn't expect much from a movie like this, but at least he could have followed the example of Rob Cohen and filmed the races in a way that makes it borderline-interesting for the audiences to endure.

The script, written by the quick rising duo of Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (2007's 3:10 to Yuma, Wanted), lacks all the elements that made the first film enjoyable: solid relationships among the characters, a slight sense of mystery, and races that actually mean something. Aside from missing these critical pieces, they seemed to have replaced them with tired cliches and an absoultely useless villain. Sometimes villains don't need to be as epic as Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars - just look at Taken and Statham's Transporter series. In these types of movies, it's more about watching the main character wreck henchman after henchman in new and creative ways; we don't necessarily care about a "final battle" with an ultimate bad guy (though it's a nice bonus when done correctly). Where 2F2F miserably fails is that it doesn't seem to understand this relationship and therefore gives us very little worthwhile action AND a crappy villain. Brilliant.

It would take forever to count all the cliches found in this movie, so I'll just list a few of the most unforgivable*. We've got the girl who goes undercover but is romantically linked to the bad guy, the Thomas Crown Affair trick with the scattering of cars at the end, the bitter cop who thinks they've all gone too far, and the infamous "ramp a car onto a moving boat." Some of these are excusable when separated, but add them together in the same film and you'll get disastrous results most of the time. Again, it takes a certain kind of movie to pull off ramping a car onto a boat. Starsky and Hutch? Sure, because it's fun and ridiculous. 2 Fast 2 Furious? This movie doesn't have the right kind of vibe to be able to successfully execute a move like that - they were pushing it with the "stare and drive" scene.

The film definitely isn't helped by its actors, who are about as interesting as a dried pile of sloth dung. On one level, it's not fully their fault - the script truly is awful, so they don't have much to work with. But on the other hand, you're getting paid to deliver lines - the least you could do is recite them with some conviction. Eva Mendes was dreadful in an early role, Tyrese drove the "angry black man" stereotype into the ground, Ludacris was almost unwatchable (as he was in Hustle and Flow), and Paul Walker lost the intensity he had in the first film. Without a comparably ridiculous presence like Diesel to play off, Walker falls short and the main hero of the story becomes an unlikeable character. Not to mention the fact that he committed a major crime at the end of the last film and the cops are willing to wipe his slate clean if he helps them with this mission, and then after they complete it, he and his ex-con partner STEAL MONEY and walk away. They do all this while referring to each other as "bre" and "cuh" at a rate of three or four times per sentence. Stay away from the ad-libs, guys. There was no chemistry between these supposed "old friends," and the movie suffered dramatically because of it.

As far as I noticed, there were only two original aspects of this movie. One, a torture scene in a club, features the main villain (some d-bag named Carter Verone) strong-arming a cop into giving him a "window" for his henchmen to race through to deliver drugs near the end of the movie. While the cop is held down, Verone places a live rat on his exposed stomach. He then places a metal champagne container over the rat, trapping it inside, and lights it on fire with a blowtorch. This causes the rat to start clawing and eating his way into the cop's flesh, causing a considerable amount of discomfort. Don't worry, he caves in and they let him go without too much bloodshed. But I'll give them credit for originality in that department. The second instance is in the form of an invention that doesn't exist - a projectile clamp that shoots from a gun and attaches itself to a car, shocks it with an electric jolt, and shuts down the engine remotely (pictured above). I'm not even sure such a thing is possible to build in the real world, but it seemed like it fit in well with the rest of the crap in this movie.

Overall, I'd say stay away from this flick and just watch the first one again. The new movie due out this summer, called Fast and Furious, actually takes place between this film and the next one, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. So at the most we can hope the series returns to the fun it had with the first installment, and at the very least we know there's going to be a cameo from Tyrese in it. Stay tuned for a review of Tokyo Drift next month, and then a review of the new film in April when it hits theaters. Until next time...

*These cliches aren't really unforgiveable - in fact, they're fairly commonplace. I just wanted to link to that video.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Take Three, February Style

It's a new month, and that means it's time for a new edition of Take Three. Thanks to an outpouring of comments from a few readers last time around, we've got enough categories to keep this series alive.

Best Movie Musicals of the Past 10 Years
1. Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog
2. The Phantom of the Opera
3. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

Worst Eddie Murphy Movies That I'll Never See
1. Norbit
2. Meet Dave
3. Daddy Day Care

Movies That Need Sequels or Prequels
1. Swordfish (sequel)
2. Tombstone (prequel)
3. Crank (prequel)

Most Obvious Product Placements
1. I, Robot
2. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
3. Demolition Man

Best Movies That Have Their Own Theme Park Ride
1. Back To The Future
2. Jurassic Park
3. Toy Story

Funniest Spoof Movies
1. Airplane!
2. Hot Shots
3. Spaceballs

Best Ben Stiller Non-Comedy Movies
1. Keeping the Faith
2. Along Came Polly (more rom-com than comedy)
3. (I've got nothing. I was stretching it for Along Came Polly. Tough category.)

Movies That Should Have Their Own Video Game
1. Dirty Harry: The Game
2. Bruce Almighty: Free Reign
3. Point Break: Bodhi's Back

Video Games That Should Be Movies
1. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
2. Dead To Rights
3. Assassin's Creed

Best Fight Scene
1. The Protector
2. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy
3. Equilibrium

Most Action Per Minute In A Domestic Film
1. The Bourne Identity
2. Wanted
3. Rambo

That'll wrap it up for this month's Take Three. Got an idea for a category you would like to see featured? Throw it down in the comments section, and let's keep this train rolling. Until next time...