Wednesday, 22 August 2012

'The Expendables 2', 'The Bourne Legacy', 'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry' and 'Searching for Sugar Man': review round-up

Now that I'm well and truly equipped with a new PC, I have no good reason to keep my reviews confined to short round-up form. However, I have a few movies still stored up from the past few weeks and that format is the easiest way to clear the deck, so to speak. This time around I present to you quite an (I think) intriguing mix: two little documentaries and two action blockbusters: a "thinking bloke's" thriller and a brainless, but thoroughly (if guiltily) entertaining sequel.

'The Expendables 2' - Dir. Simon West (15)
I hated 'The Expendables' - the 2010 flick designed as a sort of male equivalent of 'Sex & the City 2', built solely to pander to misplaced nostalgia for politically dubious (to be kind) 80s/90s action movies. It had a black heart, horrific politics and - perhaps worst of all - its set pieces were unimaginative and characters instantly forgettable. It was a masterpiece of stunt casting, uniting a group of heroes from yesteryear, but the poster was infinitely more fun than the film itself.

However, director Simon West (of 'Con Air' fame) has delivered a much better sequel after taking the reigns from star (and co-writer) Sylvester Stallone. It's still a little bit racist - "Chinese take out" is the joke as Jet Li jumps out of a plane, whilst every villain is an unassimilated foreigner - and plenty sexist: a shameless sausagefest, every bit as homoerotically suggestive as its predecessor (these dudes talk about each other's "weapons" constantly, whilst the addition of a woman to the group (Yu Nan) gives rise to all sorts of adolescent tittering and performance anxiety). Yet there is something much more fun about it; It feels less po-faced and more willing to have fun with its very silly premise.

It feels like the movie adaptation of a line of 90s children's action figures, complete with collectable vehicles and changeable weapons, and with that the film's regressive, pre-teen version of masculinity becomes more palatable. It knows what it is and is comfortable being the sort of camp curiosity the first one should have been. 'The Expendables 2' doesn't so much verge on self-parody as willingly run into it, and in doing so it becomes much harder to outright hate even if it remains hard to like. In fact, I watched most of the film with a broad smile on my face, laughing loudly at the unrelenting tour de force of escalating bombastic sillyness in front of me. I don't know if it's objectively "good" (whatever that even means) - and that's not a sly way of admitting it isn't: I genuinely couldn't say given that I don't know whether I was laughing at it or with it - but it was funnier than the majority of comedies, I'll give it that.

For instance, Let Li beats up a room of guys with a saucepan; Jason Statham decks a room of dudes dressed as an Orthodox priest; Dolph Lundgren reveals his advanced understanding of chemistry. Chuck Norris turns up and it's hilarious, complete with a riff on his modern status as a meme (Stallone: "I heard you had a run in with a king cobra" Norris: "yeah. And, after five days in agony, the cobra died"). Arnie and Bruce Willis show up (a couple of times) and it's brilliantly self-aware and funny, even if (or perhaps because) it's never subtle as they quote 'Die Hard' and 'The Terminator' at each other. It's oddly pretty good natured fun, given that the head's of "bad guys" are exploding in OTT red streaks in almost every single frame. Humanistic or sensitive the film is not, and it lags whenever we're truly asked to care about these horrible human beings: who torture their prisoners and murder thousands with smiles on their faces. But when it isn't doing that it kind of works.

It's a who's who of Hollywood Republicans getting together to celebrate guns, American might and patriarchy, yet it somehow does this in a way that had even this lilly-livered Guardian reader - one, I remind you, predisposed to hate it, hanging on its every explosion.

'The Bourne Legacy' - Dir. Tony Gilroy (12A)
The obvious question facing this latest instalment of the highly-rated spy-thriller series is "can it survive the loss of star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass", as Jeremy "so hot right now" Renner and screenwriter Tony Gilroy take the reigns? The answer is a broad "yes", in that 'Legacy' has not killed the franchise. It's solid, moves along at a fair clip and does the usual job of providing slick action sequences amid an otherwise fairly dense, talky thriller. But it isn't quite as good as the original trilogy, getting a little unnecessarily bogged down in its internal mythology, with far too many scenes involving people in government offices talking about secret projects and the like.

In fact it often feels as though the fairly entertaining scenes between Renner's rogue operative Aaron Cross and his reluctant ally, a scientist who 'knows too much' played by Rachel Weisz, are outnumbered by bits of Ed Norton shouting about "the big screen", "Treadstone", "senate hearings" and "the crisis suite". It tries too hard to associate itself with the previous films too, in a way that prevents it from having much of its own personality. But unfortunately, instead of enhancing its street cred in the intended way, this only adds to the feeling that this is the Bourne B-team: an in-depth look at a previously un-glimpsed background character that plays like a two-hour deleted scene.

There is one brilliant - and I mean absolutely amazing - bit, in which Renner gets one up on a persistently annoying wolf in the most spectacularly overzealous way possible ("you should have left me alone" being his totally unnecessary putdown for the ill-fated woodland quarry). If nothing else it should provide closure to those dissatisfied by the resolution of 'The Grey'. Yet aside from this (admittedly very silly) sequence, it's hard to remember much from a film which is far more efficient and capable than it is particularly outstanding. In that way it serves as an apt metaphor for its dependable, if over-exposed lead.

'Searching for Sugar Man' - Dir. Malik Bendjelloul (12A)
Undoubtedly one of the film's that's effected and fascinated me the most this year, 'Searching for Sugar Man' is a great and stylishly put together documentary about a mysterious 1970s singer-songwriter whose unjust obscurity in the US is made all the more strange by his rock god status in apartheid South Africa. The bizarre and moving story of Rodriquez is probably best left for the film to tell in detail, but rest assured it's a compelling tale about a humble man of immense charisma. It's a less comic yet far classier version of 'Anvil', to sell it in crass marketing terms.

As well as being a great story, irrespective of musical taste, it also serves as an effective showcase for a previously unsung musician, whose music and poetic lyrics are given a long-deserved airing. Tracks from the artist's two early 70s records, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality (his only two albums to date), are allowed to play at length, alongside illuminating visuals that highlight some of the wry social commentary (such as the urban decay of Detroit) without ever being too on the nose. It made an instant Rodriquez fan out of me and I'd say it's a must-see for anyone with an interest in the likes of Bob Dylan, The Byrds or 70s rock in general. I don't usually like to boil down reviews to straightforward recommendations, but I feel the need to in this instance: go see it.

'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry' - Dir. Alison Klayman (15)
Inspiring even if it's not typically "feelgood", this intimate look at the activism and art of the outspoken Ai Weiwei, a prominent critic of the Chinese government, is deeply affecting - both as a critique of modern China and as a portrait of Weiwei the man. Director Alison Klayman has near total access to her subject, as he fights various vain legal battles against brutal policeman, censors and those who would cover up the deaths of children for the sake of international propaganda. It's a high-stakes battle that Weiwei is waging and he comes scarily close to a bad end at several points, yet his determination and resolve surely should reinvigorate even the most politically jaded and nihilistic of souls. He's never hopeless even when things seem at their most bleak.

Visually it's quite limited, by necessity as much as anything as mobile cameras follow the artist day to day, yet this is still one of the year's best docs. It's also an interesting and rare glimpse at social media as a force for good. People are increasingly cynical about sites like Twitter, but here Weiwei enthusiastically showcases how such tools can be used to mount a sustained campaign for social justice and reform. His love of such sites, and the potential he sees in them to energise the young and democratise society, is refreshing and provides an intelligent voice in favour of progress in an age where such technological advancements are routinely dismissed as cold and alienating.

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