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Jason Wallis Stallone’s ‘Expendables’ is action done right

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Posted: Saturday, August 21, 2010 12:00 am

Sylvester’s Stallone’s magnum opus “The Expendables” more or less closes out the depression-inducing summer movie season, but at least we’re going out on a high note. Also this week: a quick look at a dozen upcoming fall releases that will hopefully do something to make amends for the past three months of disappointing dreck.

Whenever we hit a rough patch like this, when seemingly every film that opens at local theaters isn’t worth a minute of your time or a dime of your money, I get hassled for “not liking anything.” Apparently, the logic is that movies are innately entertaining — neither the filmmaker nor the stars need to do anything to earn your attention or gratitude, and can in fact just put a bunch of random, uninteresting crap on the screen and expect accolades. After all, “it’s just a movie.” If you’re one of those people who subscribe to this view, who liked “The A-Team” or “The Losers” or “Predators” or “Salt” or any of the other boring action flicks we saw this summer, then you have my pity.

Perhaps a viewing or two of “The Expendables” will straighten you out. See, this is what I’m talking about when I say that modern action movies should offer more creativity and flair — nobody expects great dialogue or fantastic acting in a “braindead action movie,” but for God’s sake, don’t you want engaging set-pieces and likable characters and awesome kills and coherent action sequences and everything else that makes an action movie enjoyable? As an old-school throwback to ’80s action sensibilities, “The Expendables” delivers all this in spades, and in the process underlines everything that is wrong with Hollywood’s traditional approach to the genre.

“The Expendables” is more than a movie; it’s a statement, Stallone’s personal manifesto on the American action film. The plot is bare-bones (a group of mercenaries, headed by Stallone, is hired to take out a small army of CIA-backed Central Americans stationed on a remote island), but by surrounding himself with co-stars like Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, and Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in effective cameos, Stallone embeds his film with a sense of history, a reverence for the way things used to be. Throw in a chain of great, visceral action scenes featuring some very fun and creative kills, and you’ve got an action picture for the ages.

Jason’s fall movie preview

1) “The Town” (Sept. 17, wide) — This sophomore effort from writer/director Ben Affleck, involving a band of bank robbers operating out of Boston, rates to be this season’s most arresting thriller. If Affleck exhibits even a fraction of the filmmaking skill he showed in “Gone Baby Gone,” it could also be one of the year’s very best films.

2) “The Social Network” (Oct. 1, wide) — I never thought I would be so intensely interested in seeing a movie about Facebook (stupid, time-wasting bane of humanity that it is), but when you bring David Fincher into the picture, everything becomes exponentially more promising. Starring Jesse Eisenberg (the more talented version of Michael Cera, and seen recently in “Zombieland”) as one of the original developers of the site, the film looks like a very compelling — if not entirely accurate —  behind-the-scenes peek at an unusual subject.

3) “Black Swan” (Dec. 1, limited) — Darren Aronofsky is easily one of our finest and most visionary directors, and this psychological thriller about the unsettling relationship between two ballerinas (Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis) is getting great buzz. Let’s just hope Aronofsky keeps his head out of the clouds this time, and doesn’t give us another indulgent, meandering failed experiment like “The Fountain.”

4) “True Grit” (Dec. 25, wide) — Jeff Bridges as “Rooster” Cogburn in a remake of “True Grit,” written and directed by the Coen Bros.? Um, yes please. Josh Brolin as the main baddie is just the dark, menacing, potentially psychotic cherry on top of what looks to be an awesome project.

5) “Inside Job” (Oct. 8, limited) — With “No End in Sight,” director Charles Ferguson managed to deliver what no other filmmaker before or since could: a clear-headed, even-handed, impossible-to-dispute analysis of what, exactly, went wrong with the Iraq War. With his new film, he turns his attention to the American financial crisis, and I, for one, can’t wait to be illuminated.

6) “Waiting for ‘Superman’” (Sept. 24, limited) — Another documentary, this one about the complete and utter failure of the American public education system, as chronicled by “An Inconvenient Truth” director David Guggenheim. Made for the lefties, I’m sure, but even naked propaganda can be interesting if done right — just look at “An Inconvenient Truth.”

7) “Machete” (Sept. 3, wide) — Shut up. You know you’re curious, too.

8) “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I” (Nov. 9, wide) — I haven’t been very pleased with the direction of the “Harry Potter” series since David Yates took the reins two entries ago, but it is my sincere hope that there will be enough crazy-cool stuff going on in this finale that Yates’ terrible direction won’t distract from the sheer spectacle of it all. “Part II” arrives next year.

9) “Due Date” (Nov. 5, wide) — Director Todd Phillips (“Road Trip,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “Old School”) reteams with “The Hangover” star Zach Galifianakis, and even brings Robert Downey Jr. on board for this story about two mismatched traveling companions trekking across the U.S. I’m hoping for “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” with more poop jokes.

10) “Another Year” (Dec. 31, wide) — Another low-key family drama from British auteur Mike Leigh (“Secrets & Lies,” “Topsy-Turvy,” “Life Is Sweet,” “Vera Drake,” “Naked” — his list of accomplishments goes on and on). Another masterpiece? Considering his track record, I don’t think it’s out of the question.

11) “I’m Still Here” (Sept. 10, limited) — Were you wondering what the deal was with Joaquin Phoenix’s inexplicable “retirement” from acting, and the insanity that ensued? Wonder no more, thanks to Casey Affleck’s much-touted mockumentary showcasing Phoenix’s descent into madness and poor hygiene. It could very well be one of the most annoyingly pointless films ever made, but I’d be lying if I said my interest wasn’t piqued.

12) “How Do You Know” (Dec. 17, wide) — I don’t know much about this romantic comedy-drama about the fallout from a blind date between Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd. But I do know that it’s written and directed by James L. Brooks (“Broadcast News,” “As Good As It Gets”) and featues Jack Nicholson in a rare supporting role, and that’s more than enough for me.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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