ACTION, ANIMATION, GHOSTS, WHITNEY & DISNEY MAGIC
Packing a one-two punch that’s unbeatable, EXPENDABLES 2 proves once again that nothing beats the classics and this jam-packed cast of legendary classic action stars - and their more than formidable skills - evidences just that. Card carrying AARP immortals Stallone, Willis, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Lundgren, Li and Norris are joined by fellow veterans Couture, Crewes and Adkins along with action newcomer Liam Hemsworth, not to mention a kick ass Yu Nan, for an explosive global experience to rival the battles of the Greek Gods and Titans themselves.
Co-written by Stallone (who also penned “Expendables”) and Richard Wenk, this go round director Simon West (who more than proved his action mettle directing Jason Statham in “The Mechanic”) takes the reins of this explosive adrenalin-fueled action adventure as Barney Ross (Stallone) and his band of mighty mercenaries heads out to Nepal to extract a kidnapped Chinese billionaire, the success of which will even the score between Ross and his employer-for-hire, Mr. Church (Willis). Imagine Ross’ surprise when the team arrives to find another operative has beaten them to the punch, none other than Trench (Schwarzenegger). Unfortunately for Trench, his mission went a bit awry and he was taken hostage as well, thus necessitating his own “favor” from Barney and the boys.
But it seems Ross and Church still aren’t square as Church still wants his $5 million that Ross “liberated” in a prior job. Crying poor, Ross makes another deal with Church that will definitely square them, only there’s a catch - a Chinese tech expert named Maggie (Yu Nan) must join the team. A woman? With the EXPENDABLES? No way! But Ross has no choice as Maggie is the only person who can crack an electronic safe aboard a crashed airplane in Eastern Europe to obtain a device so classified and so top secret that its identity or function can’t be revealed to the boys. With everyone agreeing to come on board for this mission, including newest member, sniper specialist Billy the Kid (Hemsworth) who is already set to leave the EXPENDABLES after the mission is completed, the team heads out for some Hail MaryError! Hyperlink reference not valid. action.
Ambushed by crime lord and cartel leader Vilain (Van Damme), Ross is forced to turn over the device in exchange for the life of one of his own men. Despite his compliance, Vilain lives up to his name and executes a man anyway. With revenge now the operative word, not to mention retrieving the stolen device, the mission is simple. "Track them, find them, kill them."
It’s Christmas in August (as in Lee Christmas) with the return of everyone’s favorite action heroes. As ringmaster Barney Ross, Sylvester Stallone heads up this band of merry men while Jason Statham reprises his role as Lee Christmas, Barney’s right hand man and quite obviously, best friend. With Stallone out from behind the camera this time, he gets a chance to develop Ross further and dig deeper into emotional trenches, and particularly his friendship with Christmas. And speaking of Christmas, as always, Jason Statham is one helluva Christmas present as he not only ramps up his own action (if that was even possible) but is Johnny-on-the-spot with rapier wit and sharply honed timing.
Similarly, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis play with their own witty double entendres and killer action sequences, proving not only are they back in action, but they still know how to play hard and die hard. Notable is the expertise that these two (along with Stallone, Statham and Lundgren) bring to the filming process. Given limited budgeting, location difficulties and last minute scheduling, much of the production was in flux, requiring actors to turn on a dime, thanks to their skills and professionalism, when there would be a glitch with the action, each was able to adjust with the cameras rolling and keep on going.
As Toll Road and Hale Caesar, Randy Couture and Terry Crewes man up the muscle while Dolph Lundgren gets a chance to not only flex his biceps and triceps, but his comedic muscles as well. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this team is Man Candy at its finest!!
Liam Hemsworth is an admirable addition to the team, bringing youth and naivete to the mix as Billy the Kid, and providing a new dynamic of emotional exploration for the veteran team. Delicious is Jean-Claude Van Damme and his right hand man, Scott Adkins. As Vilain and Hector, the devil is in the details with their own patented brands of action expertise. Making the addition of these two as the EXPENDABLES adversaries is a no-brainer given that at some point in their careers, each has worked with the “good guys”. That familiarity of fighting style and production skill really shows in the technical details of the action. And while limited in on-screen time, don’t miss pivotal performances by Jet Li and Chuck Norris.
Written by Stallone and Week, while the action is a thrill ride to die for and will have you holding on for dear life just in your theater seat, there is great development of the characters themselves as backstrokes wend their way into the dialogue, as does homage to each of the actors’ most famous movies. And take note of those backstrokes folks because much of it is based on the actors’ own lives. With non-stop action and wisecracks the watchwords of the day, director West celebrates classic action with classic stunts, car crashes, airplane maneuvers and gunfire galore. Taking the visuals into the action stratosphere is cinematographer Shelly Johnson who is one of the best at filming difficult action choreography, not to mention making the most that Europe’s panoramic vistas and war torn settings have to offer.
You can never go wrong with the classics and especially, classic action. EXPENDABLES 2 puts the class in classic.
THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN
Turning our attention to a different kind of magic is THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN. Sweeping one in the magic and awe of hope, imagination and miracles, powerfully filling the heart, this is a story filled with the heart and magic of a classic Disney fairy tale.
Jim and Cindy Green are desperate for a child. Living in the small town of Stanleyville, close-knit families and friends are what life is all about. The only industry is the Stanleyville Pencil Factory where Jim is a supervisor while Cindy is curator of the Stanleyville Pencil Museum. And while Jim and Cindy have a happy life, they feel the absence of a child every day. On learning that they can never have a child of their own, they vow to accept what Fate has handed them, but not before they allow themselves one night, one night to dream; to dream of the perfect child. And so one by one, they scribble down all the traits that their child would have and placing the little slips of paper into a box, they bury it in the garden as a child would bury a hidden treasure box.
But what happens when Jim and Cindy awaken in the night and find a mud covered little boy named Timothy sitting in a cardboard box in the spare bedroom in the house? It seems that Fate wasn’t quite finished with the Greens as this living, breathing 10 year old boy is like a gift from the gods. Timothy is their little bit of heaven, their little piece of magic, their son. And he has leaves growing out of his legs.
With a touch of pixie dust glistening over the Greens, Timothy becomes not only a part of the Green family, but an integral part of the community, touching the lives of all like the warmth of a noon day sun.
There is no one who can better portray Cindy Green than Jennifer Garner. Bringing an over-protective and enthusiastic sensibility laced with giddy innocence to Cindy that only a real-life mom can do, Garner makes Cindy resonate with reality and warmth. Similarly, Joel Edgerton, although not a real-life dad, gives Jim that Jimmy Stewart everyman “dad” persona doing all the father-son things that are so “Americana” and while adding a level of flummox that seems inherent to first-time dads.
But the real joy is CJ Adams who steals the show as Timothy. The more you watch him, the more you just ant to wrap your arms around him and bask in the glow of him the way Timothy lifts his arms to the sun. An old soul with all the wide-eyed innocence, honesty and charm of a child, he is beyond a delight. Exacting, simple, organic flow to his dialogue delivery, physical expressions and movements. Very minimalist, almost as if director Peter Hedges likens him to nature and how one can just appreciate it without forcing anything. And just wait until you see Adams go toe-to-toe with veteran M. Emmet Walsh who plays Uncle Bub. Talk about magic!
Not to be missed is Dianne Wiest who is delicious as town matriarch Ms. Crudstaff. She is as perfect as a brand new #2 pencil (and as rigid)!
Written by Peter Hedges and Ahmet Zappa, and directed by Hedges, the narrative technique of flashback in the form of telling a fairy tale works brilliantly...and thankfully, it is consistently told in one voice - that of Cindy, so we have a constant POV for the storyteller. Embracing the beauty of nature to the point of being celebratory, visuals are exquisitely captured in John Toll's cinematography. Beyond the visual beauty, the lighting and framing showcase and embrace the golden glow of fall with its rich deep colors and warmth, adding textured emotional layers through the images to create a hominess which just furthers the film's overall embracing quaintness and charm. The vibrancy of color juxtapositioned against a softening yet warming noon sun is simply beautiful.
Production design of Wynn Thomas and art direction of James Hegedus integrate the colors and concept of nature with such attention to detail and thematic cohesion so as to add to the magic of the story. Breathtaking is a secret garden built by Timothy and his friend Joni.
Although the film’s ending loses some of the oomph and magical charm that CJ and his storyline of Timothy brings throughout the film and lacks the sweet surprise that continually unfolds earlier, THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN is still "oddly" wonderful and magically charming.
Who doesn’t love a real ghost story? Well, thanks to writer/director Nick Murphy, we’ve got a winner with THE AWAKENING. Although containing elements of other ghostly films like “Red Lights”, “The Others”, “Woman In Black” and others, THE AWAKENING rivets you to the screen in this original period perfect post-World War I tale.
Florence Cathcart prides herself on her skills as a “hoax exposer”. With the loss of a million men during the war, people are looking for any means to heal their souls, including turning to charlatan soothsayers and seances, clinging to any thing that will keep alive the memory of their loved ones; or better yet, bring them back from the dead. Florence, who lost her beloved fiancé, has great disdain for these methods and has made a name for herself working with law enforcement exposing these shysters for the frauds they are. To Florence, there is no beyond, no such thing as ghosts.
Summoned on a private assignment to an all boys boarding school to explain the rumored ghostly sightings of young boy following the unexplained deaths of a student, Florence finds herself beginning to question her own beliefs as her own emotional wall is shaken to its foundation thanks to the extraordinarily handsome professor, Robert Mallory, and the school’s housekeeper, Maud. A war veteran himself, and sole survivor in his unit, Mallory fiercely believes in the supernatural. Maud on the other hand, and her favorite young charge, Tom, staunchly believes everything that Florence has written and spoken about. There are no ghosts. And then there’s that old issue of seeing is believing and believing is seeing. What does Florence believe in her heart of hearts? And more importantly, what does she see?
A dark-haired dead ringer for Molly Ringwald, Rebecca Hall is emotionally commanding as Florence. Strong, defiant, confident, Hall makes Florence a force to be reckoned with, a woman one can admire and a woman someone can believe, thus adding more meat to the story. Then there’s Dominic West. (Ladies, let’s just all take a *sigh* right here as this is manly goodness to make you go weak in the knees.) As Mallory, he brings an emotional intensity and softness to the character that reels you in. Then put West and Hall together and chemical explosiveness abounds with a believable fiery intensity.
The one to watch is Isaac Hempstead Wright. Such a cherubic look. Such emotional control. Such softness. From the minute he appears on screen as Tom, he is a dichotomous paradox. While his character is well constructed in terms of the story, it is Wright's tacitly nuanced performance that is riveting, filling one with questions, and subconsciously forcing one to pay even closer attention to what is unfolding. Much like with “The Sixth Sense”, Nick Murphy gives us tell tale signs about Tom and the real truth about Florence's past in terms of camera placement, character interaction, and the presence of Maud. And if one is paying attention, which they should be given Wright's performance, you start to pick up on the fact that there's something crucial to the story about Tom. And what about Maud? Imelda Staunton is brilliant. Giving Maud a prim/proper/greying/grim-faced look lends itself well to posit thoughts about Maud claiming to like kids, making one wonder if there's an ulterior motive to her being at the school.
Written and directed by Murphy, the story is engaging and it works to its advantage to have so many recognizable touchstones to other films as it actually makes one wonder what else Nick Murphy is tapping into. He arouses the level of curiosity. The post WWI era is perfect for a ghost story and the opening title card with the brief sidenote about the loss of over 1 million British lives during 5 years of WWI gives us all the backstory we need. Perfectly played is the "ghost" aspect and who may be behind the alleged occurrences and sightings. Aspersions of guilt are cast on the children, on Robert, on handyman Edward. Murphy keeps us guessing. And speaking of Edward, what a creepy, skin crawling, pedophilia-laced performance by Joseph Mawle.
Calling on cinematographer Eduard Grau (who did a great job with the Ryan Reynolds vehicle “Buried”), visually, the palette is perfect. Shot on film. Grainy. Muted tones of greys, washed out greens, grey sky or overly-white with a tinge of grey. Interior of the house with light colored, washed out walls but the heavy, dark wood flooring captures not only the time period but the very essence of spooky. Even the costuming is void of color. Camera work and editing have a few stand out moments that make you jump in your seat while Murphy's use of sound really pushes the fear factor forward.
THE AWAKENING will awaken audiences to filmmaker Nick Murphy.
For full reviews to these films and others, including the “awesomely cool” PARANORMAN, Whitney Houston-Jordin Sparks song fest SPARKLE, and Chris Rock’s hysterical turn in Julie Delpy’s comical 2 DAYS IN NEW YORK, not to mention exclusive interviews with casts and filmmakers, go to www.moviesharkdeblore.com.