Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Expendables (Movie Review)

Having given his Rocky and Rambo franchises one last successful hurrah in recent years, Sylvester Stallone decided to put a nice and tidy bow on the over-the-top 1980s action movie phenomenon with his self-directed homage to the genre, The Expendables.

Stallone gathered up some of his old and new action buddies for a fun romp of a film that could have been lifted straight out of of 1985. A few of his 80s action rivals, such as Bruce Willis and "the" Arnold, make small, tongue-in-cheek cameos in the film. But, of the well-known 80s stars, it seems only Stallone's pharmaceutically enhanced, leathery body was capable of the punishment this action-heavy movie would produce.

So, bring in the new blood. Jason Statham and Jet Li are the closest friends to Stallone's character in the movie and they get the most screen time. The other action-ready expendables are made up of Randy Couture, of mixed marital arts fame, and the hulking Terry Crews, of the Old Spice commercials. Mickey Rourke attempts to steal the award for most leathered and steroid enhanced but he only plays a retired member of the crew who gets to cry, tattoo, and give advice.

Dolph "I will crush you" Lundrgren is the loose-cannon of the group who has fallen on hard times and can not be trusted. He plays a small, but pivotal role in the film.

If you've seen any 80s action film you know the general plot of this film. It goes something like this: bad dictator, people in danger, things and people get blown up, heroes come in, bad people and bad things get blown up, drink beer to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Stallone does inject a little heart and sappiness into the story so it's not all guts and glory but for the most part it's lots and lots of action.

Two memorable moments stood out for me from the film. The first was Terry Crews' ridiculous gun. If you have seen the movie Predator, you may remember the amazing gun that Jesse "The Body" Ventura utilized to mow down half of the jungle. Well, Terry Crew's gun is that set to a 11. When he shows up with it and literally starts eviscerating people, well, it's a thing of pure beauty.

Before I chronicle that other amusing part of the movie, I have to mention that Stone Cold Steve Austin plays a heavy for the bad guys. He kind of skulks around and is menacing and you know that sooner or later he is going to battle it out with the expendables. He actually has one hell of a fight with Stallone that ends in kind of a stand still but I think Stone Cold got the better of Rocky.

However, this is not the last man-to-man fight that Steve Austin has in the film. Nope, out of nowhere he has a quick and brutal confrontation with Randy Couture. Now, Couture is by now means a main person in the expendables crew. He has a few amusing lines but for the most part he's just another body in the group. But, in real life he was a legitimate badass college wrestler and as soon as he started mixing it up on screen with one of the most famous WWE, a la fake, wresters of all time, I thought the outcome would be extremely interesting.

In any other action movie, a main bad guy like the one Austin was portraying would have quickly and brutally killed Couture's character in order to have a real emotional scene of the villain killing a likable good guy. Yet, in an obvious attempt at stating to the world that a real wrestler would never lose to a fake wrestler, even in a fantasy, macho-male action movie, Couture bests Stone Cold in a shockingly quick and nasty way. I laughed out loud at the audacity of the scene but it was still highly entertaining.

The Expendables is a great throwback film and I think Sylvester Stallone succeeded in what he set out to make. I actually hope he's able to make a sequel or two as all the characters are really enjoyable to watch and things blow up real good.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Hunger Games (Book Review)

Following the Harry Potter and Twilight books, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, is the next huge book series aimed at young adults. Like the Potter and Twilight phenomenon, The Hunger Games is taking the world by storm and is reaching all ages of readers and appeals equally to girls and boys.

The series has a great set-up. We are in the not-too-distant future and the area of the world that used to be North America has been ravaged by war and the human race has been severely reduced. However, there is still a semblance of society and civilization. The world of the book is run by a city known as The Capitol. Imagine a wheel with spokes and The Capitol would be placed at the center with the 12 districts it oversees fanning out around it.

The Capitol rules with an iron fist and takes what it wants from the districts. It keeps them in line with a strong security force. In the recent past, the districts attempted an uprising but were subjugated. As an ongoing punishment and reminder of the district's place as servants to The Capitol, the hunger games were created.

Each year, a lottery is held in each district and one girl and one boy between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected to battle to the death with the other districts' unfortunate participants. The games are gladiatorial contests to the death and each year they are staged in different natural arenas that are not only pitted with weapons for each competitor to use, but also unspeakable death traps and grisly surprises.

The book opens with our heroine, Katniss. She, like all members of district 12 is living one day at a time. Her district is the mining area of the empire and is a backwater afterthought. The residents eek by on meager rations and Katniss and her good friend, Gale, help their families survive by hunting illegally in the woods outside of district boundaries.

The hunting lifestyle has made Katniss into a talented archer and a very resourceful and strong-willed young woman. Katniss cherishes her family more than anything and when the inevitable lottery comes around again in her 16th year, she dutifully approaches the town square to hear who the unlucky girl and boy will be.

When her 12-year-old, younger sister, Prim, has her name announced, Katniss does the only thing she can to save her, she volunteers to take her place in the hunger games. All seems lost for Katniss but she discovers she has an interesting history with the boy selected next to her. Peeta is her age and she doesn't really know him that well. However, Peeta knows Katniss better than any other living person as he has secretly loved her since the first day he laid eyes upon her.

Thus, Katnis and Peeta are whisked away to the Capitol to begin their training for the hunger games. Katniss has to say goodbye to not only her family, but her dear friend, Gale, who she never quite sorted out her feelings for. Gale has been her steady friend for years and she has always been so concerned with what her next meal will be that she's never considered him as anything else until she is forced to leave him, in all probability to die.

Because, make no mistake, Katniss and Peeta will not be favorites to survive the games. Only one child wins and the districts closer to the capitol are better fed and their kids are better trained. Only one child from the last 30 years has won from district 12. That child, now a drunken man called Haymitch, will actually be their mentor at the games and this doesn't seem in anyway an advantage.

That's all the details I'm getting into. I wanted to paint a picture of the world and give you an idea of where the book is headed. The games are even more cruel and amazing then you would think for a young adult novel. Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch are a dysfunctional group who argue and stumble through the pre-game ceremonies and training. Yet, they manage to bond and they quickly realize that they will all need each other if anyone is to survive.

There is real emotion involved once they reach the Capitol. These are just children that are being forced to murder or be murdered in turn. It's brutal and it is draining to watch them stare their mortality in the face. But, through all the tragedy, there is heroism, generosity from unexpected places, and love.

I've actually finished the entire trilogy and it is exceptional. There's no way to go into details without spoiling major story and character revelations. I hope your curiosity is piqued and you give the books a chance. I know you will love them.