The Expendables 2

 ‘The Expendables’ from 2010, directed by Sylvester Stallone, was an unremarkable action film that only contained two memorable scenes. 1: A beefy, but overly sensitive Mickey Rourke making an emotional confession about letting a woman commit suicide during the Bosnian war; 2: Jason Statham punching a guy in the face when the dude was already on fire. It was an ensemble piece in which Stallone et al liberated the masses of the third world using whatever tools they had at their disposal (I’m certain this included steroids).

I doubt those of you seeing ‘The Expendables 2’ are interested in its plot, but let me humor you anyways. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Dolph Lundgren – they’re all back. New to the team is an easily adaptable Yu Nan, a young but ambitious Liam Hemsworth, and the lone-wolf mercenary Chuck Norris. When one of these members, who I will not mention by name, is killed during a seemingly routine job, they seek revenge on Jean Claude Van Damme, a villain appropriately named John Vilain. He has the blueprint to the location containing five tonnes of pure plutonium (“Six pounds of it is enough to change the balance of the world” says JCVD). Their mission, as instructed by Stallone – “Track him, find him, and kill him!”

Despite the (marginally) negative review I gave the first picture, I have to say I had a blast watching ‘The Expendables 2’. Can I defend it as a great movie? Perhaps not. But, I can say I had a pretty great time watching this film fly with the fireballs, bullets, and testosterone. So, why an endorsement of this film and not the first? Well, I think much of it has to do with the directorial choice. Even though Stallone has directed a number of action movies, I think he is best suited for drama. Take a look at this scene, which I described in the first paragraph of this review. Notice how Stallone gets closer to the emotion of the scene by absolving shot-reverse-shot. His direction of action scenes, however, is often clunky and chaotic. Simon West took over the director’s chair for ‘The Expendables 2’ and that’s the biggest positive change I noticed. West’s previous (good) efforts include ‘Con Air’, and ‘The General’s Daughter’.  He has a good sense of framing, and how to construct an action sequence, and combining the two in  widescreen. Though the action scenes are as busy this time around as they were in the first picture, so much is simultaneously transpiring on the screen that you may need to watch such scenes frame by frame to fully appreciate what West has assembled. But, the end result is a much crisper visual sense that pushes the film forward. The opening rescue operation sequence involving trucks and airboats is nothing short of goofy, spectacular entertainment. And the final showdown left me with sweaty palms.

There is nothing dishonest about ‘The Expendables 2’ – it knows exactly what it is. It’s a blast to see these action film veterans together – yes, the first movie was an ensemble piece as well, but the screenplay of ‘The Expendables 2’ has a better sense of humor about itself, even if it is of the self-deprecating variety. It’s hard not to smile rehearing some of these actor’s self-referential signature lines. The special effects look as dated as the 1980s action films its paying homage to, but that didn’t bother me. Even if some of the actors are looking a little shrivelled at their old age, they’ve still got it, particularly Jean Claude Van Damme, an actor who many of my movie-going colleagues (and myself) have criticized for years. This back to basics action film is lean and efficient, seamlessly shifting from self-parody to shoot-em-up violence. ‘The Expendables 2’ is a pretty awesome throwback to the action films of yesteryear. I’m not embarrassed to admit it – I loved this movie. Perhaps the biggest positive surprise of 2012 so far for yours truly. QED.

– Jerry Nadarajah

Ruby Sparks

The plot: Calvin (Paul Dano) is a 29-year novelist who wrote a hit novel 10 years ago and has since been struggling from writer’s block. He isolates himself in his apartment, and his only friend is his brother Harry (Chris Messina). On occasion, he visits his psychiatrist (Elliot Gould); he barely speaks to his mother (Annette Bening) or her boyfriend (Antonio Banderas). Calvin’s life changes when he wakes up from a dream in which he encounters a beautiful woman in a park. This gives him in the inspiration to start another story about the girl who he names ‘Ruby Sparks’. He finds himself falling in love with his own creation. One day, she is in his apartment as a flesh and blood woman who sees herself as his girlfriend.

This is a concept you just have to accept, there is no explanation. “Its love, its magic!” shouts Calvin. ‘Ruby Sparks’ deviates from the formulae of its rom-com trappings and raises some interesting philosophical questions. The first half of the picture about romantic fulfillment is light, fluffy, and delightful. The second half is very bleak – one scene in particular caused me physical pain to watch. The tonal shift from gentle to dark is seamless, and doesn’t suffer from a cinematic case of multi-personality disorder like most films do. We do know these two characters fall in love, but what happens after that? He created her – is it morally acceptable to tweak her according to how he sees fit? Or at the point when it becomes clear that she is an individual, should he stop writing and see how things pan out? At what point does nurturing become smothering? What exactly are his responsibilities – is this similar to that of a parent of a child? If I had this magical ability, how would I respond to these situations? How would I react to my psychological flaws in a relationship that I had been previously blinded to in creating this girl? Does this situation translate to the online world – do we create personas of who we want to be rather than who we are?

Few films this year engaged my brain as much as this one did. The premise may require a big leap of faith for some – I admit, I rolled my eyes initially, but quickly became involved in the lives of these characters. It isn’t completely far-fetched – authors become attached and form relationships with their fictional constructs. This picture reminded me of vintage Woody Allen, and Paul Dano is a good conduit for the Allen persona with his neurotic tics, and low-key style. His struggle as a writer is identifiable, especially in regards to the weight of success. Following up on a hugely successful project is no easy feat. Audiences have expectations which are always benchmarked by the quality of the artist’s previous work. Parallels can be drawn between the Paul Dano character and the directors (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) of this film. This is a follow-up to their first film, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, which was well received by audiences and critics, and was a Best Picture nominee for the Motion Picture Academy in 2006.

The script was written by Zoe Kazan, the same person who plays the title character in the movie. This is a screenplay to savor, one whose subject matter is approached with a sensitive eye about the way men perceive women. Calvin’s brother states “You can do anything with her” – this includes making Ruby’s boobs bigger, and having her give him blow jobs. But, Calvin’s isolated character seems more interested in female companionship.

The last high-quality unconventional rom-com I saw was ‘500 Days of Summer’. I love that these two films challenge the mechanical aspects of their genres, but it is a shame that audience members have to wait every three years for such a film to appear. I would like to thank all of those involved in this project – both in front of and behind the camera. I can’t wait to see they do next. I’d consider *this* spark to be about 100,000 volts, which is substantial enough to resurrect a very tired genre.

– Jerry Nadarajah