The Expendables 2- 4 (out of 5)
Can a bunch of long-in-the-tooth action stars still substitute muscles, guns, and wisecracks for super heroes and special effects? Sylvester Stallone & Co. respond to that question with a resounding “hell yeah.” “The Expendables 2” is a “go-bigger” sequel that works and it does so because of exciting familiar faces.
This time a debt Barney (Sylvester Stallone) owes to Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) leads him and his team of mercenaries to Albania in order to recover a lost safe. Only once there they are ambushed by a villain named Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), a cold-hearted bastard enslaving people from a neighboring village to mine weapons-grade plutonium. This of course cannot stand.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris (making cheer-worthy entrances and deftly satirizing their old action movie personas) just complete the classic eighties/nineties action nostalgia this movie is going for. And while Bruce Willis is really the only one of this cast (which also includes Jet Li, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crewes, and lone woman Nan Yu) you could really call an actor, there is also something to be said for charisma and these guys could make even the cheesiest line or dumbest plot twist seem all part of the campy fun. They’re very funny together (loved a scene where they discuss what they would want their last meal to be), especially a surprising Lundgren whose like Lurch from “The Addams Family” but also brilliant. Stallone leads this thing beautifully and I gotta say the anticipation of a final showdown between him and Van-Damme made me feel like a kid again and he doesn’t disappoint.
This of course is all formula. The meager plot about saving villagers (but who doesn’t want to get behind rooting for the guys saving the impoverished?), the cheesy dialogue, and over-the-top villains are all there but director Simon West creates non-stop adrenaline from all the bullets, explosions, fight choreography, and blood splatters until we roll into the final confrontation. It isn’t good filmmaking, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s still summer action season, and who’s more “action hero” than these guys?
Paranorman- 3 (out of 5)
Every kid has that movie that’s going to scare the crap out of them for the first time. The stop-motion animation studio Laika, which was behind 2009’s fantastic “Coraline” and now this Tim Burton-meets-low-rent monster movie mash-up “Paranorman,” again manages a good first step for scary movie virgins.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young kid living in Blithe Hollow who’s a bit of an oddball, not just because of his stiff stand-up head of hair, but also that he talks to ghosts, his dead grandma (Elaine Stritch) chief among them. Neither his parents (Jeff Garlin, Leslie Bibb), sister (Anna Kendrick), or the torturous school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) believe he has this power or care to listen. The only one who believes him is his deranged Uncle (John Goodman) who he learns may not be so deranged when he finds out that a centuries-old witches curse is real and that he must use his power to save the town from zombies.
Visually this is all terrific looking, especially if you’re a kid. Walls move and melt away, there are gothic flashbacks to Salem-like witch trials, all the gruesome loss of body parts that a PG rating will allow, and the finale is hauntingly suspenseful.
Unfortunately it’s also preachy, with a “listen to your kids, even if they’re weird” sort of moralizing that’s a bit depressing. And it’s true what they say about zombies; once they’re out of the ground, there isn’t all that much a screenwriter can do with them.
Luckily “Paranorman” has a dark sense of humor that occasionally brings a big chuckle. A scene where Norman must pry a necromancing book from the hands of a dead body is a potent jolt of physical comedy. The jokes about dumb high-school teenagers though? Didn’t care much for them. Mostly this works because of real solid visual craftsmanship, making “Paranorman” stand as some of the best animation of the year.