9/21/10 Edition Twitter: THEAISLESEATCOM
Aisle Seat at the Movies
Andy Wraps Up Summer 2010

Other than the runaway success of Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story 3" and, to a lesser extent, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,”  it wasn’t the best of summers for Hollywood. If audiences weren’t deluged with remakes and (my favorite new buzz word) “re-imaginings” like “The Karate Kid” and “The A-Team,” they were left with mediocre sequels from “Shrek 4" to “Sex and the City 2" and, yes, another “Twilight” film. 3-D also proved to be more of a fad designed to goose ticket premiums than a durable box-office component with numerous efforts bombing altogether (“Piranha 3-D,” “Step Up 3-D,” “Cats and Dogs 3-D,” and even a re-release of “Avatar” which failed to muster much of an audience). Meanwhile, numerous big-star vehicles underperformed, from Tom Cruise’s “Knight and Day” to Julia Roberts’ “Eat Pray Love.”

Truth be told, not a ton of summer movies particularly appealed to me this past year (I'm not crazy about CGI animated films in general), but there were a few I enjoyed – and others I was disappointed with. Here’s a quick recap of the (mostly-dismal) Summer of 2010 from the Aisle Seat:

THE EXPENDABLES (***): Critics were divided by Sylvester Stallone’s ‘80s action-throwback, but audiences so far have eaten it up: with a domestic gross headed over $100 million and enthusiastic audience scorecards, “The Expendables” was one of late summer’s few consistent performers at the box-office.

It’s certainly a more lighthearted romp than Sly’s effective but ultra-violent “Rambo” revisit, with Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Mickey Rourke comprising a team of mercenaries hired by shady Bruce Willis to dispose of a ruthless South American dictator. Stallone and Dave Callaham’s script is just an excuse for the boys to blow lots of things up, generate a few laughs and leave as many dead bodies in their wake as possible, but the fun is how disarming “The Expendables” is – from the much-discussed cameo scene for Schwarzenegger and Willis (complete with a hilarious punch line), to Statham and Stallone’s air-assault on the island (the film’s most memorable set-piece), this is just hugely entertaining for genre addicts, even if Sly the director’s shaky-cam threatens to ruin a car-chase sequence.

The performances are all appropriately laid-back – Sly generating good chemistry with both Statham and the film’s female lead, lovely Mexican actress Giselle Itié, whose role might have ended up partially on the cutting room floor (like “Rambo,” perhaps a casualty of editing for the young male demographic Lionsgate covets), while a Lundgren-Li brawl ends up being particularly amusing.

It’s nothing extraordinary, and may not resemble the epic Stallone-Schwarzenegger team-up fans have been clamoring for, but “The Expendables” is definitely entertaining, throwback fun for action fans, and one of the summer’s most appealing films all told. (R)

INCEPTION (**½): One of the summer’s biggest hits, “Inception” boasts all the hallmarks of a Christopher Nolan film: dense plotting, gorgeous visuals, grating (and incessant) Hans Zimmer music, and a determined, deadly-serious lead performance. What it lacks, as Nolan’s past films have, is a soul – a heart that enables audiences to emotionally connect with its protagonists.

It’s another icy but compelling Nolan film where you consistently feel at arm’s length with its characters, and in this case, it’s regrettable since Nolan’s script engagingly toys with past genre films like “Brainstorm” and “Dreamscape” (at least from a conceptual angle), as “dream thief” Leonardo DiCaprio and his team (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page) attempt to break up the empire of dying Pete Postelthwaite by entering the dreams of his son Cillian Murphy -- all to the benefit of their corporate competitor (and DiCaprio’s employer), Ken Watanabe.

Nolan layers the film with evocative, spectacular visual effects of cities folding over, of characters bending time and space and defying the laws of physics by entering one level of the dream-world and further, more mind-bending extensions within. It’s a spellbinding visceral experience, even if the movie is never as offbeat and weird as its premise suggests (the final level in Murphy’s ultimate “dream world” looks like a “Call of Duty” level and, indeed, plays like you’re watching a video game), while narratively the picture comes up short, marked by characters who function more like archetypes than real people. There’s not a lot of emotion generated in “Inception,” and Nolan does little to infuse the drama with anything more than DiCaprio’s quest to “get back to his kids,” with the actor doing his best Christian Bale imitation, clenching his jaw and frequently delivering dialogue that sounds like a FAQ for a word processing program.

What we’re left with is a movie that is the very embodiment of popular modern moviemaking: it’s “cool,” intricately made and spectacular on a technical level, yet leaves you wanting more from its core. One wonders whether Nolan will ever get to the level where his movies engage you emotionally instead of leaving you primarily marveling at how awesome they look. (PG-13)

PREDATORS (**): Robert Rodriguez taking over the “Predator” franchise, producing a direct sequel to the 1987 Arnold-McTiernan classic, in an “old school” (non-CGI) visual framework should have resulted in – if nothing else – a rollicking good monster mash, but the best you can say about “Predators” is that it’s better than the “Aliens Vs. Predator” films. Or, at least the second one.

That’s not much of a consolation prize as the distressingly tedious “Predators” finds a group of Earth-bound hunters, soldiers and killers mysteriously brought to another planet where they’re, once again, hunted down by Predators with a few new tricks up their sleeve (including some barely-glimpsed “Predator Dogs”). Leading the humans is mercenary Adrien Brody, which alone presents part of this picture’s problem: it says something about genre films produced in 2010 that instead of strong, physically imposing action heroes we have Brody, whose lack of physical presence is compounded by a charisma-free performance where the actor seems to be channeling Christian Bale as Batman with his monotone delivery.

Unsurprisingly, Brody is blown away on-screen by Larry Fishburne and his all-too-brief cameo as a human who’s spent just a little too much time in the Predator’s hunting ground – the “Fish” is completely over the top as he rolls his eyes and talks to an invisible “friend” about how to knock off Predators and what to do with the planet’s new human prey. If there was justice for genre flicks at the Oscars this is the very embodiment of an effective Supporting Actor performance, but perhaps Fishburne will get some more interesting roles off his memorable, albeit quick, contribution.

Otherwise, “Predators” is hugely disappointing and thoroughly routine: director Nimrod (all-too appropriate) Antal takes forever to get the movie started and isn’t particularly adept at staging action sequences, with too many run-ins with the Predators occurring in claustrophobic quarters. The editing and choreography of these moments is awkwardly handled, while the story gives viewers nothing new -- and little in the way of amusing lines or character development. It all ends, appropriately enough, with a completely open final scene setting the stage for another sequel which, judging from the film’s only modest box-office receipts, is unlikely to come to fruition. (R)

THE OTHER GUYS (**½): Adam McKay and Will Ferrell generated a good amount of laughs with their past vehicles “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” but their latest collaboration – an attempted cop-buddy movie parody with Ferrell playing opposite Mark Wahlberg as mismatched NYC cops – ends up half a hysterical comedy, and half a crushing bore.

The first 45 minutes offer the choice material with Ferrell and Wahlberg following the money trail of shady businessman Steve Coogan (completely unfunny) and trying to leap into the limelight vacated by popular veteran cops Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson (whose exit from the film is undeniably hilarious). Some admittedly brilliant moments (even Michael Keaton is funny) include a group of homeless guys who ruin Ferrell’s car (“they call it a soup kitchen”) and Eva Mendes as Ferrell’s wife (it might be one long joke, but at least it’s a good one).

In fact, the opening of “The Other Guys” works so well that it’s a shock when the picture’s second half not just stalls out but hits the wall completely – eschewing comedy for “real” action scenes, and working from a script that seems to have been constructed only to set up the picture’s opening hour. Once the movie has to go somewhere narratively, “The Other Guys” falls to pieces, and even ends with pretentious statistics about ponzi schemes and the bail-out (no, I’m not kidding) that run over the end credits – putting a bizarre and unfunny cap on a movie that runs out of gas long before they roll. (PG-13)

DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS (*½): Paul Rudd looks appropriately disinterested in this labored farce, a remake of a popular French comedy, about a yuppie (Rudd) who’s assigned by his boss (Bruce Greenwood) to bring an idiot to dinner. Rudd’s moron of choice is tax man Steve Carrell, who enjoys taking dead squirrels and putting them in dioramas.

Director Jay Roach’s “Dinner For Schmucks” reportedly died in test screenings, necessitating re-shoots and major editorial work before its July release. None of his or the studio’s efforts paid off, as the final product is a disjointed, truly painful “comedy” with an unfunny performance from Carrell and a prolonged cameo by Zach Galifinakis that must have been goosed in post-production (memo to Zach: the crazy man shtick is going to die quickly if you keep making junk like this). Nothing in the film works, and Rudd – who managed to be spot-on in recent comedy hits “Role Models” and “I Love You, Man” – seems completely irritated by the would-be shenanigans surrounding him. Can’t say I blame him. (PG-13)

IRON MAN 2 (**): It’s beginning to look like director Jon Favreau simply hit the jackpot with the original “Iron Man,” since this bloated, disappointing sequel falls more in line with his other directorial outings, including the meager Will Ferrell comedy “Elf” and the bland fantasy “Zathura.”

Offering far too many subplots for its own good, with incessant teasers for “The Avengers,” “Iron Man 2" feels more like an advertisement for upcoming Marvel productions than its own entity. Robert Downey Jr. is again engaging as Tony Stark, but while Mickey Rourke provides fair villainy as a tough-guy Russian physicist, our hero is surrounded by an excess of supporting players, from Sam Rockwell’s arms dealer to Scarlett Johansson’s appearance as the “Black Widow,” Don Cheadle (taking over for Terrence Howard) as “War Machine,” Garry Shandling (huh?) as a snide Washington senator, and a prolonged bit from Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. The Justin Thoreux screenplay fails to satisfyingly juggle all of these elements, and what’s worse, there’s never a sense that any dramatic stakes are on the line. More like a group of talented actors biding their time before the big “team up” movie comes our way in a few years. (PG-13)

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