THE EXPENDABLES 2
If home viewings of The Expendables 2 are one day turned into a drinking game, and I pray that they are, one of the rules has to be that you chug every time the film employs a thudding cliché from the '80s, either directly or indirectly. A plot involving stolen weapons-grade plutonium? Drink! A team of he-men astonished that a new female recruit can actually do something? Drink! Dolph Lundgren wrestling with a Rubik's Cube? Drink twice!
I promise you that the copious consumption of alcohol will make the Expendables 2 experience a lot more enjoyable, but happily, unlike this sequel's predecessor, you can have fun at the movie without liquor being mandatory. In what turns out to be one of the more pleasant surprises of the summer, 2010's lumbering, overwrought, and deathly boring The Expendables has inspired a follow-up that's loose, funny, and charming - or, at least, as charming as any follow-up with pummeling machine-gun warfare and endlessly exploding squibs possibly can be. Despite its über-obvious, tongue-in-cheek camp appeal, there was something desperate and rather sad about director/writer/star Sylvester Stallone's original action flick for AARP members, a lack of confidence that was apparent in the clumsily staged melees and the aging performers' forced, jokey banter. (The subtext read throughout seemed to be "Please let us be relevant again.") But with the first film emerging as a substantial box-office hit, and genre veteran Simon West taking over the directorial reins from Stallone, this homage to Reagan-era crap classics proves to be nothing but confident - a big, broad blow-'em-up that takes nearly all the guilt out of "guilty pleasure."
Sure, the narrative is utter doggerel, and Stallone's and Richard Wenk's script shoehorns in its fading stars' familiar catchphrases ("I'll be back!" "Yippee-ki-yay!") so awkwardly that you occasionally feel the need to laugh merely out of pity. West, though, keeps the nonsensical events moving at a speedy clip, and comes through with utterly sensational fight sequences that make you wince and giggle; Jason Statham is granted a particularly outstanding bit in which he kicks his assailants' asses while dressed in a clerical robe, and there are cackle-worthy "Clunk!"s and "Bonk!"s aplenty when Jet Li attacks a heavyset bruiser with a pair of frying pans. (There's also an exquisite violent gag involving an airport x-ray machine that I'm astonished I haven't seen before.) Yet West's movie is even better whenever Stallone, Statham, and the film's cast of supporting monoliths are allowed to just relax and riff, as when the he-men - and, in the form of the appealing Nan Yu, he-woman - discuss their favorite foods, or Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger lead a chase in a borrowed compact car and Ah-nold exclaims, "My shoe is biggah dan dis!" I silently cheered when Jean-Claude Van Damme dispatched a nemesis with a knife to the heart that he drove in with his foot. But I positively roared when Stallone, greeting a group of Middle Easterners, introduced his team by saying, "We're Americans," and the British Statham - standing alongside the Swedish Lundgren and the Chinese Yu - retorted, "Since when?" The Expendables 2, with its Neolithic single-mindedness and frequently cornball repartee, can really only be taken as a comedy. Thankfully, it's also kind of a great comedy.
A word of warning for those of you who might want to bring your kids to the animated ParaNorman: You might not want to bring your kids. A tale involving zombies, ghosts, a murdered child, and a little kid who, like Haley Joel Osment, can see dead people, this horror comedy is seriously creepy, and in its suggestion that the titular Norman is totally nuts, it's more than a little disturbing. (By the film's midway point, it starts to resemble an animated Take Shelter.) But I'll follow that warning with a word of encouragement: Go ahead and bring the kids if you need an excuse to see it, because this beautifully designed, riotous, and unexpectedly moving entertainment is utterly spectacular. Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, the picture opens with a brilliant movie-within-a-movie gag, and its comic invention never once wanes, from the ring tone on Norman's cell (which plays John Carpenter's Halloween theme) to the details behind a pet's unfortunate demise. ("He was run over by an animal-welfare van. Tragic and ironic.") And with the vocal cast including Jeff Garlin, Leslie Mann, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Casey Affleck, and Elaine Stritch, all of them inspired, Butler's wonderful original - and wonderfully original - script delivers more laughs than any horror comedy since Shaun of the Dead. Yet the great shock of the film lies in how supremely touching it also is; the supernatural gifts of our grade-school hero (voiced by a heartbreakingly good Kodi Smit-McPhee) are presented more as an unwelcome burden than a goofy comic conceit, and the movie's melancholic gravity, by the end, is legitimately haunting. I can't fathom how I could love ParaNorman more than I do, but after at least another half-dozen eventual viewings, it's entirely possible that I will.
THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN
There's a new, live-action Disney release titled The Odd Life of Timothy Green, and "odd" isn't exactly the term I'd use to describe it, though "maudlin," "obnoxious," "insufferable," and "ungodly-freaking-terrible" do spring to mind. What on Earth was writer/director Peter Hedges thinking? And why did he appear to stop thinking the moment that filming commenced? The movie concerns an unhappily childless couple (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) who bury a box in their backyard containing their wish list for a perfect child. Late that night, a perfect little boy (C.J. Adams) with leaves on his legs springs from the ground where the box was buried. I regret to say that this is the most believable thing that happens in the film, which is so relentlessly sentimental and manufactured and phony and twee that I didn't want to bolt from the auditorium so much as grab a ladder and slap the hell out of the screen. I hated the forced Americana of the movie's setting, a quaint little burg named Stanleyville that bills itself as "The Pencil Capital of the World." (Hence the leaden dialogue, I guess.) I detested that every character except Timmy and his much-taller girlfriend emerged as a cartoon monster, including Timmy's folks, who are so staggeringly self-involved that they shouldn't be allowed to care for a plant, let alone a kid who is a plant. I loathed the dreary pacing, and the blatant manipulation, and the crummy supporting portrayals by the usually reliable likes of Rosemarie DeWitt, Ron Livingston, and M. Emmet Walsh. (Garner, meanwhile, overacts so hideously that the revocation of her SAG card wouldn't be completely out of line.) And I was especially outraged that Dianne Wiest - poor, poor, poor Dianne Wiest - was so routinely humiliated here, at one point actually forced to exclaim the line, "If this boy can have leaves on his ankles, then we can make a pencil out of leaves!" The Odd Life of Timothy Green shouldn't be merely ignored. It should be turned into mulch.