More people die in the first five minutes “The Expendables 3” movie than in any other two war movies combined. There is death by bullet, bazooka and bomb. It’s a wild but oddly bloodless beginning to the movie. Perhaps its because they have scaled back the rating to PG13 from the hard Rs the last two Expendables enjoyed, but removing most of the over-the-top violence leaves an absence of the over-the-top fun of the originals. Why arm Stallone and Company up the wazoo and then skimp on the fake blood and faux carnage?

A mission to stop a shipment of bombs brings grizzled mercenaries Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Caesar (Terry Crews) face to face with their toughest adversary yet, arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). Determined to bring down Stonebanks, Ross retires the oldtimers—“We aren’t the future anymore,” says Ross, “we’re part of the past.”— and recruits a fresh group of soldiers—Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Victor Ortiz and Glen Powell—but just may find that his old dogs have some new tricks.

“Great plan,” says Luna (MMA fighter Rousey) of Ross’s old-fashioned bulldozer approach to mercenary work, “if it was 1985,” and this might have been a great movie if it was 1985. Despite the lack of overly gratuitous blood and guts, it feels like one of those direct-to-video action movies from the Reagan years. With no sense of nuance and clichés aplenty, it ploughs ahead, relentlessly reveling in its own stupidity. Kind of the like everything, but especially the action movies, in the 1980s.

But for much of the movie, that’s OK. How could you not love Wesley Snipes saying that his character was put in jail for tax evasion? It’s art imitating life! Or something.

Most of the other performances aren’t so much performances as they are action star posturing. Kelsey Grammar, as a recruiter for a new batch of Expendables, stands out because he does some actual acting. So do many of the obvious stunt doubles. The rest are all bulked-up chunks of machismo floating in a sea of testosterone.

Still, as an old-school action movie, it works well enough, despite the lack of gallons of fake plasma. I liked the attempts of creating new catchphrases—which are a must in these kinds of films—like Crews yelling, “It’s time to mow the lawn,” before spraying thousands of bullets into a dock packed with baddies. Also, the action scenes are shot clearly and effectively, and unlike last week’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” you can actually see who is shooting-punching-blowing up-kicking-garroting-etc who. It makes it easier to cheer for the good guys when you can tell who the bad guys are.

The Giver review


These days many speculative fiction films are set in dystopian cities, places ravaged by war, famine or man’s stupidity. “The Giver” goes a different way, setting the action in a utopian society where everyone is equal and no one, except for a young man named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), questions anything.

Based on Lois Lowry's young adult novel of the same name, “The Giver” is set in an ascetic world divided into climate-controlled communities. Climate isn’t the only thing that is tightly controlled, however. A strict set of simple rules—like “Use precise language” and “never tell a lie”—keep people in line but to make sure the citizens conform, they’re given a morning injection—the Prozac of the nation.

The docile population lives a colorless existence, where their every move is monitored and all choice has been removed because, as the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) says, “When people have the right to choose they choose wrong every single time.”

When Jonas is chosen to be the Receiver of Memory, the recipient and keeper of all mankind’s darkest secrets and memories, he begins to realize that the world was not always monochrome, that it was once a colourful place where love—“ a word so antiquated it no longer has meaning”—and pain existed side by side with war, peace and all the other messy stuff that make humans human.

“The Giver” is George Orwell Lite, willy-nilly lifting from not only “1984,” but Ray Bradbury's “Fahrenheit 451” and a host of young adult novels. It’s an unholy combination of dystopian themes and tropes, banged together to create a convincing, if somewhat dull world.

Shot in austere black and white, the highly controlled community is like 1950s America on film, structured, monotone in race and idealized. The conformity on display is chilling, at least the idea of it is. The film is too restrained to show us the detrimental effects of the grinding monotony of living in a place where sameness is valued above all. We’re told that the memories of the past are agonizing, “Sometimes the pain of the memories is too much,” says The Giver (Jeff Bridges)—but the flashbacks to the wild, untamed life that came before the enforced conformity aren’t as revealing as they’re meant to be. Colorful stock footage shots of people dancing, animal cruelty and other slices of life are meant to shine a light on the human condition but are, for the most part, no more provocative than anything we see on the nightly news.

They are jarring, like a screaming barker commercial for Monster Trucks interrupting an episode of “Masterpiece Theatre,” but only because they’re such a break in tone from the rest of the film. These visions may rock Jonas’s world, but they don’t make much of an impression on ours.

Also not making much of an impression is Meryl Streep in a generic villainess role. The cast’s other Oscar winner, Jeff Bridges is in full-on old codger mode, reviving his gruff voice for “True Grit” and bringing some humanity to a movie that should be teeming with it, but isn’t.

The remaining cast, even the leads, Thwaites as the young man who longs for something more in life and Odeya Rush, his love interest who has a harder time imagining a world without bland orthodoxy, aren’t given enough to do to make us root for them. Ditto supporting actors Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes.

“The Giver” is a small movie with big ideas about individual freedoms, memory, traditions and customs. Important themes one and all, but they’re wrapped in a movie that does not do them justice.

The Trip to Italy review


Four years ago a restaurant tour by two British comedians resulted in one of the most charming films of 2010. “The Trip” was an improvised journey not just through Northern England’s culinary scene but through the psyches of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they comment on life, usually while doing spot-on Michael Caine impressions.

The Michael “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” Caine impressions are back in full force in “The Trip to Italy,” as are the laughs and the self-aware conversations.

This time around Coogan and Brydon rent a Mini Cooper and retrace the steps of the Byron and the other Romantic poets' grand tour of Italy set to the music of Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill.” They eat, banter and take in the view from Liguria to Capri. Between a hysterical re-imagining of the dialogue from “The Dark Knight Rises”—“I can Hardy understand what Tom’s saying.”—and a one-sided conversation with a preserved corpse in Pompeii, is a study on everything from fatherhood to fame to faithfulness.

Director Michael Winterbottom luxuriates in the chemistry between the two men. They are naturals, an intellectual version of The Two Ronnies, who riff on everything from pop culture hot buttons like Batman and pop music to the carnal exploits of Lord Byron. Their interplay is the key to keeping the rambling narrative on track and it is enough. They are the film’s glue and the sheer joy of watching them spar prevents the film from dipping into self-indulgence. That, and the gorgeous scenery.

“The Trip to Italy” is a riotous comedy that finds time for self-reflection, Roger Moore impressions and the timeless Alanis Morissette vs Avril Lavigne debate and it is intimate and infectious.

Let's Be Cops review


The old saying, “clothes make the man,” has been altered slightly for a new comedy starring “New Girl’s” alum Damon Wayons Jr. and Jake Johnson. The pair play friends Justin and Ryan, thirty-somethings trying unsuccessfully to make a go of it in Los Angeles.

A masquerade party changes everything for them. Suited up as policemen they soon realize that people treat them differently when they wear the badge. Walking down Sunset Strip they discover that women really do love a man in uniform and for the first time since they moved to California from small town Ohio, they aren’t invisible.

On a lark they use their fake badges to break up an actual crime, a shakedown by a gang on a small restaurant. The bad guys flee, and bolstered by his first bust Ryan embraces the charade, buying a cop car on eBay, sewing sergeant’s patches on his uniform and going on out real life police calls. Justin wants to hang up the uniform before the situation gets out of control, but Ryan is determined to bring down the leader of the shakedown gang, a violent thug named Mossi (James D'Arcy). When things get out of control Justin calls Officer Segars (Rob Riggle). “It started off as fun,” he says, “but now we need help from real cops.”

“Let’s Be Cops” isn’t really a police story, nor is it, by the ratio of minutes-to-laughs, really a comedy. It falls somewhere in between. It’s actually about self-worth, power, respect and getting in over your head with a bit of satire thrown in. The leads have great chemistry and Riggle is always worth a look, but as buddy-buddy as the characters are, it isn’t as funny as “21 Jump Street.”

The high energy screwball tone of the first hour makes way for a low-rent looking “Bad Boys” homage in the final half-hour, becoming the very kind of movie it attempted to satirize in the first place.