It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
It's rare that a sequel trumps the original but The Expendables 2 manages to do just that with a steady stream of one-liners and welcome weathered faces as well as a few new ingredients. E2 seems even more self-aware of its own silliness especially with Jean-Claude Van Damme as the villain (named Vilain of course) and Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger popping up in smaller roles alongside previous Expendables Sylvester Stallone Jason Statham Jet Li Dolph Lundgren Bruce Willis Terry Crews and Randy Couture.
Then again The Expendables wasn't any sort of action classic; it was like writer/director/star Stallone threw a whole bunch of ideas at the wall to see which would stick then added massive amounts of weapons and the occasional hand-to-hand combat. It was popular but it definitely not the kind of awesome actioner that the stars were able to make 10 or 20 years ago. There's the rub actually; like women actors who have written or directed their own projects because nothing else was available or satisfactory Stallone created The Expendables because Hollywood didn't seem to know what to do with him and his fellow action stars as they got older. It's easy to criticize Stallone et al for not doing the same amount of stunt work or hand-to-hand fighting that for example Statham is capable of but the whole thrust of the movie is that they're expendable -- to themselves to the world and until Stallone kickstarted these movies to Hollywood.
E2 is still clumsy but it's a little more adventurous and a little more introspective. Two new additions to the crew seem to throw everyone for a loop in one way or another. Liam Hemsworth shows up as Bill the Kid a sniper who left the military after a raid in Afghanistan went horribly wrong; his age and hopefulness not to mention physical prowess is a foil the Sylvester Stallone's Barney Ross and one that Barney is well aware of. Nan Yu joins the team as Maggie who is apparently the only person who can disarm the safe that holds whatever secret thing Church (Willis) has sent them to retrieve. And if the Expendables don't get her back alive Church will make them pay because even though Maggie is some sort of multilingual computer genius with a vicious roundhouse she's a lady. On one hand perhaps we're supposed to gather that this group of old dogs is learning new tricks by having to deal with a smart capable woman in their midst; the attempts Gunner (Lundgren) makes to flirt with her are clunky and goofy and she's obviously way too smart for fall for that claptrap. On the other when she whips out some instruments of torture Barney cracks "What are you going to do give them a pedicure?" And of course her role also devolves into an incredibly stilted and unbelievable romantic interest for Barney. One point for trying but two points deducted for falling into the romantic interest trap.
At times it's hard to tell whether or not we're laughing with the crew or at them. Plus because of how jam-packed the cast is some actors get the short end of the stick. Statham is the most charismatic of the bunch and he also has the most impressive hand-to-hand fight scenes but the emphasis in E2 is sheer firepower so he doesn't get nearly enough screen time. Couture is fairly forgettable while Lundgren plays the lunkiest of lunkheads; the running joke is that he has a chemical engineering degree from MIT and was a Fulbright Scholar which is supposed to be funny... except it's also true. (We're to assume he's mended his evil ways between the first Expendables and the second.) Is Lundgren agreeably poking fun at himself the same way Schwarzenegger hams it up at every turn? Or does E2 have shades of JCVD which stars Van Damme was a washed-up action star? Are the emotional moments supposed to fall so hilariously flat on purpose? For some reason it seems important to tease out which parts of these movies are earnest and which are tongue-in-cheek.
There's a weird melancholy about watching this group of aging action stars that has the same tang as watching someone you love grow older especially as they try so very hard to fight the ravages of time. If you dig a little deeper maybe deeper than E2 warrants you could find a well of sadness below the back-slapping antics. The world has changed and even though Stallone and his crew have muscles so hard and juicy they could pop out of their skin like grapes they can't compete with Bill the Kid and Maggie and others like them. They know it and we know it and while it's good fun to see old friends or onscreen enemies kill scores of bad guys (led by JCVD sporting a truly horrible fake Baphomet-style neck tattoo) there are better smarter more exciting and more interesting action films on the horizon.
And there's also The Expendables 3.
September 20, 2010 2:33pm EST
So last night, the most anticipated new show of the year, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, had its big debut. The premiere was probably viewed by a gajillion people around the globe…and for good reason. A collaboration of the likes of Martin Scorsese, Terrence Winter, Mark Wahlberg and Steve Buscemi doesn’t just happen everyday, so when those popular names (along with a host of others) grace the small screen in succession, audiences pay attention. Just how good was it? Read on to find out.
The first thing that you should know is that, to the dismay of many fans, Mr. Wahlberg and Mr. Scorsese will not be contributing to each and every episode of the Prohibition-era crime drama. Wahlberg’s credit is limited to just the pilot while Scorsese, who directed the lovely inaugural entry, will serve as executive producer – which means he gets to sit back, review the dailies and reflect on his significant influence on the gangster genre while offering occasional creative pointers. No matter: with many of the producers of The Sopranos on board full time, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about the continuity of quality in this soon-to-be-classic television experience.
Now, onto the show. Boardwalk Empire begins on a gloomy night in Atlantic City in 1920, on the eve of Prohibition being mandated by the United States government. We meet Nucky Thompson, the sly city treasurer who moonlights as a bootlegger, at a women’s group rally where he is approached by a desperate housewife, as well as Jimmy Darmody, one of presumably many henchmen on his payroll. Jimmy is a WWI veteran with academic promise and little-to-no patience for the criminal hierarchy that has governed organized crime for decades. He’s got a bum leg, a family to feed and no time to waste, so when he meets the eager-to-earn Al Capone, in town with his employer on business, a profitable plan formulates.
Meanwhile, we follow Nucky as he navigates the town and conducts business. Part politician/peace-keeper, Thompson helps maintain order in the City By The Sea with the help of local enforcement (led by his brother Eli), but that’s just his public persona. When the sun goes down and the Boardwalk lights up each night, Nucky assumes the role of overlord of the underworld: Pimp, playboy, and prohibition-profiteer. But pressures from rival gangsters begin to mount and he’s forced to entertain New York mobsters like Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein, who take Thompson for a financial ride. Nucky recovers from the blow, but knows that these New Yawkas are going to be a problem. He also continues to feel the effects of his charity, as Kelly MacDonald’s abused housewife has a recurring presence throughout the pilot. She brings out the “best” in Nucky, who is sympathetic to her situation; so sympathetic that he makes it his personal mission to ensure that she will not suffer another blackeye at the hands of her alcoholic husband.
All of this character definition is taking place while a sizable heist is going down. Nucky’s big-money shipment of alcohol is stolen at gun-point by Jimmy and Al, who proceed to execute all of the carriers after a deer scares the bejeezus out of Capone. This leads to Nucky’s justifiable panic attack and temporary moment of relief/astonishment when he learns that Jimmy is responsible for the stick-up. Though he’s compensated, he learns that there’s ultimately no one that he can trust in Atlantic City and, as it’s unofficial ruler, he’ll have to be smarter, faster and more ruthless than ever if he wants to stay on top.
When I first heard about Boardwalk Empire, I was enamored with excitement. The creative talent is a virtual dream team of filmmakers and the pilot did not disappoint. Martin Scorsese’s masterful direction buoyed a relatively formulaic opening episode. The production design was perhaps my favorite element in the program; the massive Boardwalk set, erected on the shores of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, NY are some of the most period accurate that I’ve ever seen on television and many of Marty’s cinematic trademarks made it onto the screen, making the pilot especially nostalgic for film buffs like myself.
Of course, the technical components of the show won’t likely overshadow the phenomenal acting that has become a hallmark of HBO’s original programming. Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg and (especially) Stephen Graham bring gritty authenticity to the series; we haven’t seen visceral performances like these since the heydays of Tony Soprano & Co. My only concern regarding the future of Boardwalk Empire lies in the creative fatigue department. Can Scorsese and Winter, along with series directors/contributors Tim Van Patten, Allen Coulter and others keep up with the high level of quality that HBO and fans have set? Further, with a reported budget of $30 million on the pilot, will Boardwalk Empire suffer the same financial fate as HBO’s Rome, a show with a large audience but not enough money to maintain it’s cost? Time will tell. Check back on Monday for next week’s recap of Boardwalk Empire.
Attempting to delve into one of Tinseltown’s most curious scandals--the mysterious suicide (or was it?) of the original TV Superman actor George Reeves--the story begins after Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead of a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot wound during a late night party in his Benedict Canyon home. The case then unfolds through the eyes of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) a street-smart publicity hungry private dick hired by Reeves’ grieving mother. As Simo slowly peels back the layers of Reeves’ seemingly glamorous life he discovers an actor of charm talent and sophistication whose every opportunity for a big break fizzled forcing him to lead a frustrated existence slumming in the superhero show he deemed beneath him. Gradually identifying with Reeves’ failed expectations for himself Simo discovers a host of candidates who may have actually pulled the trigger on the actor including his young party girl paramour (Robin Tunney) his longtime lover and patron (Diane Lane) and his lover’s husband a powerfully connected studio “fixer” (Bob Hoskins). It is Brody not Affleck who carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders and the Oscar winner delivers a finely etched turn as Simo who’s fractured potential mirrors Reeves’ but quite simply Simo’s story isn’t nearly as dark or engaging as Reeves’ life or the mystery surrounding his death. Affleck an actor who has had his share of ups downs duds and disappointments in Hollywood delivers one of his most charming and fully realized performances to date even if his spot-on recreation of Reeves’ speech pattern is a bit distracting. The luminous Lane’s acting talents remain in full blossom in a character she’s well-suited to play—the aging beauty fearing the road ahead—and she commands every scene she’s in. Unfortunately there should have been many many more of them. She’s almost criminally underused. Hoskins more menacing then ever and the reliable stable of supporting players like Joe Spano are all top-notch as well; only Tunney apparently trying to channel both Betty Boop and Bette Davis simultaneously seems a bit off her game as the wannabe femme fatale. Best known for his strong turns helming many of the best episodes of television series such as The Sopranos Sex and the City and Six Feet Under first time feature director Allen Coulter’s cool assured hand and meticulous recreation of Cold War Los Angeles are major bonuses here. Even when Simo’s story sags in comparison to Reeves’ Coulter keeps us interested particularly when staging the Rashomon-like sequences depicting the various theories behind Reeves’ demise. But by skimping on Reeves’ story in favor of a less compelling fictional framework built around a private detective investigating the case we never see one key suspect’s possible murder scenario enacted visually and it comes off as a glaring omission.