Michael Fassbender’s big head in ‘Frank,’ a counterpoint in TMZ era

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Modern movie stardom is dependent on many things, but perhaps none more so than well-known, good-looking faces appearing in new films.

So what would make a high-profile actor decide to spend most of a movie wearing a cartoon face that renders him unrecognizable? And apart from a sense of masochistic mischief, what would prompt someone to make a movie with just that conceit?

It’s a question that will be running through your head with Magnolia Films’ release Friday of a new indie dramedy “Frank,” directed by the Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson and starring Michael Fassbender.

“Head” is a key word, since Fassbender — of course famous as Magneto in the “X-Men” series and in rigorous dramas such as “12 Years a Slave” — spends most of the film in a giant one, a fully concealing apparatus that looks like a cross between a Lego mini figure and one of those inflatable replicas of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

If you see the movie, you may find yourself furtively checking your phone halfway through wondering if you misread Fassbender’s billing — or, perhaps, calming a zealous spouse who wants to rush back to the ticket window asking for a refund. But it’s indeed Fassbender under there, speaking in an American accent, as a character inspired by Frank Sidebottom, a real-life musician who, in the tradition of the Residents and Daft Punk, was almost never seen performing without the disguise.

“Frank” actually takes this character one step further, since the Daft Punk duo presumably takes its masks off in private. Fassbender’s Frank keeps it on all the time–even, as another of his bandmates matter of factly notes, when showering and brushing his teeth.

Oh, and technically he’s not Frank Sidebottom but a character named Frank who’s inspired by him. In fact, Frank Sidebottom wasn’t even Frank Sidebottom — he was a character played on-stage by the musician Chris Sievey in late-1980s England.(Sievey died in 2010.) The journalist Jon Ronson, at the time an aspiring rock keyboardist, was recruited rather spontaneously into Sievey’s band, and he co-wrote this script in part based on that experience.

There are, then, layers of irony. Figuratively. But also literally.

As it follows the journey of the eccentric-but-vulnerable masked man via Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), “Frank” is a kind of indie-music Pilgrim’s Progress that’s also a sideways comment on modern celebrity. When it screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year the movie garnered hard-core fans taken by its abject weirdness and occasional self-consciousness, as well as plenty of skeptics put off by, well, its abject weirdness and occasional self-consciousness.

“I remember reading the script and thinking, ‘What the … is this?’” Fassbender said as he nursed a smoothie at a downtown hotel. “It’s just bizarre and original and I thought, ‘I gotta do this.’”

Abrahamson said he had in mind a commentary on the increasingly entangled world of creativity and celebrity, and the promotional realm where the two meet.

“Modern entertainment can encourage the public’s fetishization of the personality over the work,” Abrahamson said. “And that leads to a split between the person who makes the work and the showman who has to go out there and sell it. It’s a real fracture, and Frank is basically saying, ‘What happens if you don’t let that take place?’”

In other words, in an age of social-media oversharing, “Frank” questions the whole machine, the one that both builds up and tears down stars, The film asks if we’ve fully contemplated a world where an appetite for celebrity has overwhelmed our sense of mystery. It wonders if in this TMZ era, ambiguity and secrecy may be the most watchable spectacle of all.

And it does so by casting Fassbender — who, as Abrahamson notes, “is not just a famous actor, but someone whose face is talked about more than other famous actors.”

Of course, the irony is that getting a movie like this funded (its $2 million budget was bankrolled largely by the U.K.’s Film4 and British Film Institute) relies precisely on the star power the film partly debunks. Abrahamson said that financiers were aware from the outset that they would be covering up their best-known asset and made their peace with it early on.

Though he couldn’t really see out of the mask, Fassbender said acting in the film wasn’t a challenge. In fact, he noted, “It was quite liberating. It’s like you put on fancy dress or a Halloween costume and you feel a little invincible.” Plus, he quipped, “If I didn’t want to go to work, I just sent in the double.”

Still, there’s a creative hurdle to clear when filmgoers can’t register any facial expression. At one point Frank narrates his reactions (“Underneath I’m giving you a welcoming smile” or “Lips pursed together, as if to say enough frivolity”), prompting a bandmate played by Maggie Gyllenhaal to ask him to knock it off.

All of this is not so much an affect, we learn, but Frank’s way of dealing with crippling self-doubt. (Fassbender said he chose to make the film in part because he was fascinated by a character “who has this anxiety about playing in public but the music seized him anyway.”) In fact, when the mask does eventually come off, the legend built up around Frank quickly crumbles.

The director sees this as a kind of “Wizard of Oz” moment, only with modern celebrity as the great facade to be unmasked. “At the end you don’t find the little guy behind the curtain but the A-list actor,” Abrahamson said.

Of course, as a viewer you’ll have known it was Michael Fassbender all along. In this age of celebrity press, there’s no keeping that kind of secret.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Don’t say anything about ‘The One I Love’

Be aware: There is a twist. And maybe also a twist on the twist, depending on interpretation. But “The One I Love” is not intended as some trick film or gimmick movie. Rather, it is a seriocomic look at the struggle to make relationships work while maintaining a sense of personal identity. It’s like a rom-com served with a side of sci-fi.

Directed by Charlie McDowell and written by Justin Lader, the film opens in theaters Friday and is already available via on-demand platforms. Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass star as a married couple who are pretty much on the brink of splitting up. As a last-ditch effort to work out their problems, their therapist sends them to an idyllic, remote retreat. Then things get weird, and maybe a little magical.

The surprisingly respectful attitude toward not spoiling the surprises of the storytelling began with the first reviews after the film’s Sundance premiere. Variety called it “a pleasure to watch but a challenge to discuss.” Duplass, an executive producer on the film along with his brother Jay Duplass, noted that after the film was acquired by distributor Radius-TWC, test screenings were done with one audience knowing the surprises and the other not knowing. The level of enthusiasm was much higher from audiences who didn’t know what they were walking into.

“I can’t believe it,” McDowell said of the care people have taken to not give away the film’s secrets. “I feel like at a certain point it got to where if you did do it, you’re the jerk. We thought we’d get to Sundance and the only true experience of the movie would be the premiere. Then it became this thing of ‘I can’t tell you, so just see it.’”

McDowell, 31, attended Crossroads school in Santa Monica, then Chapman University in Orange and the American Film Institute in L.A. He had been working as a for-hire screenwriter in Hollywood while trying to get a project of his own off the ground with writing partner Lader. Along the way he also started a popular Twitter feed, “Dear Girls Above Me,” chronicling his annoying neighbors, which then became a book.

McDowell’s parents are Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, and his stepfather is Ted Danson, who appears in the film as the therapist. (McDowell’s girlfriend is actress Rooney Mara.) He said his background can be “both a blessing and a curse” in that many people assume it helps him more than it does.

“You’re being associated with someone else,” he said, but his natural inclination is: “I want to be different. I want this to be my own thing.

“So the idea of making a movie that you couldn’t put in a neat little box, that was the most challenging thing. It’s not like my version of something else. You’re trying to get all these people on board with something that doesn’t really have a definition.”

The story of the film came about after McDowell met Duplass and the two hit it off, looking for a way to collaborate. Duplass sent McDowell an email with just a few lines, a bare sketch of an idea. Lader wondered if the message had been cut off. McDowell and Lader then came back with a fuller idea based largely around shooting at a location available to them in Ojai. Duplass told them they were greenlit; he would fund the movie himself.

“I viewed it as a zero risk proposition,” Duplass said. “I’m not financing it to get rich off of it. I’m financing it to guarantee the creative freedom of the movie.”

The film was shooting in April of last year just a few months after Duplass sent McDowell those first lines. Shot in just 15 days, the production moved quickly, with people working on the film also staying at the house that was the main location.

“The speed is important,” added Duplass. “It’s making the movie while you’re still in the launching phase of the movie. If you can make it during that time, the positive energy and the pump that’s there, as opposed to five years later when you don’t even like the script anymore and you aren’t the same person who wrote it, that’s crucial.”

Restored ‘Zulu’ features epic-style filmmaking of the 1960s

Looking as fresh and shiny as the bright red uniforms of the British soldiers who are its protagonists, the 50th-anniversary digital restoration of the venerable “Zulu” takes us back in time twice over.

In the most obvious sense, this British film goes back to 1879 and South Africa’s Battle of Rorke’s Drift, in which some 400 of Queen Victoria’s finest held off 10 times their number in attacking Zulu warriors.

Playing a limited schedule at several Laemmle theaters, this old-school effort also takes us back to the filmmaking styles and mores of 1964, when epics extolling the glory of empire and the romance of heroic combat in exotic climes were being made and films could boast of being shot in the wide-screen process called Super Technirama 70.

It would be a mistake to pretend that parts of this childhood guilty pleasure, more popular on original release in Britain than in the U.S., don’t creak. Some of the characters and situations are thumping clichés, and the film’s half-naked native women are perhaps due to financier Joseph E. Levine’s commercial instincts.

But as directed by Cy Endfield, a casualty of the Hollywood blacklist who made a career in Britain, “Zulu” does have virtues as well, including strong acting from star and co-producer Stanley Baker playing Lt. John Chard, a can-do engineer who takes over the defense of the Rorke’s Drift missionary station in Natal.

And of course there is the young and impossibly handsome Michael Caine in his first major role: the credits read “introducing Michael Caine,” although he’d been acting for more than a decade. Adding to the joke, this dyed-in-the-wool Cockney plays a posh British lieutenant named Gonville Bromhead whom called everyone “old boy.”

“Zulu” starts with the father-and-daughter missionary team of Otto and Margareta Witt, played by Jack Hawkins and Ulla Jacobsson (a long way from Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night”), finding out that the Zulus have wiped out a sizable British force at the Battle of Isandlwana.

The Witts head back to their station at Rorke’s Drift, where Chard and Bromhead take on what seems to be a hopeless task of defending the place against an enormous multitude of Zulus because that’s what British officers are supposed to do.

Once the impressive Zulu impi or fighting force appears on the scene and the battle begins in earnest, the film’s use of Stephen Dade’s epic cinematography and an early score by John Barry (presented in full stereophonic sound for the first time in 50 years) adds to the impressive nature of the battle stagings. This may not be exact history, but it certainly makes an impression.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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‘Zulu’

No MPAA rating

Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes

Playing at: Laemmle’s Royal in West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, Town Center 5 in Encino and Claremont 5 in Claremont at the following times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

‘Ninja Turtles’ tops ‘Expendables 3,’ ‘Let’s Be Cops’ at box office

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” ruled the box office for the second week and “Guardians of the Galaxy” was runner-up in its third week, leaving three very different new films — “Let’s Be Cops,” “The Expendables 3” and “The Giver” —  fighting for the remaining spots in the top five.

“Ninja Turtles” brought in an estimated $28.4 million in the U.S. and Canada for a cumulative total of $117.6 million. “Guardians” made an estimated $24.7 million over the weekend for a new total of $222.3 million.

“Let’s Be Cops” came in third, bringing in an estimated $17.7 million for the weekend. Having opened last Wednesday to largely unfavorable reviews, the weekend’s haul brings the film’s total to $26.1 million.

“We know how this film plays, critics be damned. People enjoy this movie,” said Chris Aronson, head of domestic distribution for 20th Century Fox.

The film stars Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. (also seen together on TV’s “New Girl”) as two friends who impersonate police officers for fun and then find themselves involved in bringing down a genuine crime ring. As the nation watched tensions rise between police and residents in Ferguson, Mo., questions swirled on social media whether this might not have been the best week to release a movie that parodies the implicit power of uniformed authority. However any concerns that real-world events might keep audiences from theaters were apparently unfounded.

“At the end of the day, this has nothing to do with that,” Aronson said. “This is a total farce, it’s a comedic setup and to make the connection is I think just ridiculous.”

Aronson noted that “we’re very sensitive to the situation and we did follow,” but as events unfolded throughout the week, the marketing and release of the film were already well in motion. “The ship had sort of sailed at that point. There was nothing we could do at that point. So for us it was, fingers-crossed.”

In fourth place for the weekend was “The Expendables 3” with an estimated $16.2 million. The third installment in the action franchise was the first to be rated PG-13 rather than R, but the opening was the weakest yet. The combined box-office appeal of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Jason Statham, Antonio Banderas, Jet Li and many more action stars wasn’t enough to get audiences out in the same numbers.

Coming in fifth place was “The Giver,” an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel directed by Phillip Noyce, with an estimated $12.8 million.

With “Divergent” opening earlier this year to more than $54 million and the next installment of the “Hunger Games” franchise waiting in the wings, the results for “The Giver” could add fuel to concerns that audiences can take only so many young-adult novel adaptations.

“I don’t think there’s young-adult fatigue,” said Erik Lomis, head of theatrical distribution for the Weinstein Co. “This is a different movie. This has got Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges in it, and it’s much more a thinking person’s movie as well. It’s not the action piece some of these other franchises are.”

Lomis added: “You’d love to have a ‘Hunger Games,’ but this is not ‘Hunger Games.’ This is something different.”

The top 10 also included “Into the Storm” in its second week with an estimated $7.7 million for a cumulative total above $31 million. “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” also in its second week, brought in an estimated $7.1 million for a cumulative total of nearly $24 million. “Lucy” in its fourth week brought in an estimated $5.3 million for a cumulative total of more than $107 million. “Step Up All In” in its second week grossed $2.7 million for a new total of nearly $12 million.

“Boyhood” expanded to 775 screens in its sixth week of release for an estimated weekend take of $2.2 million and a cumulative gross of $13.8 million. The expansion led to the film’s first appearance in the top 10.

 

 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Heroic tale of ‘The Admiral: Roaring Currents’ is a hit in South Korea

SEOUL — Since April, when hundreds of high school students lost their lives in the sinking of the Sewol ferry, South Korea has been a nation in shock and mourning. The country prides itself on having risen from postwar poverty, and many have asked how a routine ferry ride could turn so catastrophic.

At this time of national soul-searching, one of South Korea’s oldest and most treasured stories of triumph has struck a chord with moviegoers. “The Admiral: Roaring Currents,” a period action film, tells the story of the 1597 Battle of Myeongnyang, a naval victory regarded as a key national triumph by many South Koreans.

“The Admiral: Roaring Currents,” distributed by CJ Entertainment, ended last weekend with box office revenue of $80.4 million, surpassing “Frozen” ($76 million) as the top-grossing film here of 2014. It opened July 30 and set records for highest-grossing opening day and weekend.

The film has an appealing narrative of against-the-odds triumph over Korea’s old rival, Japan. Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910to ’45, and relations remain plagued by the lingering resentment of that period and continued disputes over historical issues.

The star of Battle of Myeongnyang, and of “The Admiral: Roaring Currents,” was Adm. Yi Sun-sin, who led a small fleet to improbable victory over a much larger Japanese fleet.

Yi’s strategy of luring the Japanese fleet to an area where the Koreans could take advantage of favorable currents is credited as the reason an outnumbered Korean side was able to win the battle. The speed and direction of the currents, off the Korean peninsula’s southwest coast, forced the Japanese to attack in small groups, diminishing the clout of their numerical upper hand.

Starring Choi Min-sik (best known for his role in director Park Chan-wook’s “Old Boy”), “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” was directed by Kim Han-min, who also found success with his previous period film, “War of the Arrows.” That film, set during the second Manchu invasion of Korea in 1636, was the top-grossing South Korean film of 2011.

“The Admiral: Roaring Currents” opened in major North American markets, including Los Angeles, last week.

The 128-minute film is roughly divided into two sections, the first focusing on Adm. Lee’s planning for the battle, the second featuring the swashbuckling naval clash. The actions scenes are intense, showing sophisticated visual effects with realistic period-era warships trading cannonball volleys.

Some moviegoers have felt that the lengthy planning scenes were underwhelming. “While the second half was quite good, I thought the first half was boring,” said Lee Dong-ju, 23, an office worker.

Some Koreans imagine the Battle of Myeongnyang as an upbeat metaphor for their country: a small, resource-poor nation that through hard work and ingenuity was able to prosper despite tall odds. Some have suggested that the lingering grief from April’s Sewol ferry sinking has left South Korean moviegoers eager to be reminded of this narrative of courage and triumph.

“The topic [of the movie] is uniting the country, which has been divided by the Sewol incident. Everybody knows all about Yi Sun-sin and just enjoys watching him beat the Japanese,” said Kim Jeong-yoon, a 22-year-old college student who saw the film last weekend.

The Sewol ferry sank April 16, resulting in the deaths of more than 300 people, most of them high school students on a field trip. The national pain and shame of the accident worsened as details emerged showing that the sinking was at least somewhat preventable, apparently attributable to the ferry being clumsily navigated and dangerously overloaded. The government’s emergency response has also been criticized for being late and ineffective.

Critics say this has left the public craving a story with a real homegrown hero. “With many people still upset about the Sewol, South Koreans right now desperately want to see something with a morally upright character,” said Kang Yoo-jung, a professor of film studies at Kangnam University and a prominent film critic. “In the movie, Adm. Yi displays brave leadership in a difficult situation, which is really appealing to audiences right now.”

Other critics have also pointed to how South Korea’s movie screens are dominated by a few large companies, including CJ Entertainment, making it easier for certain big-budget films to reach large audiences. “It’s not an organic popularity at all,” said Nemo Kim, a lecturer in film studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

CJ owns CGV, a company of multiplex theaters across the country, and upon its release “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” was being shown on a little more than half of all the country’s screens. “

A statue of Yi stands tall in Gwanghwamun Square, the symbolic epicenter of the South Korean capital, Seoul.

In the square, families of youths that died in the ferry sinking are holding a sit-in demonstration, calling for a thorough investigation into the causes of the sinking. Pope Francis was scheduled to lead a beatification ceremony for Korean Catholic martyrs on Saturday morning, and the government and organizers have warned that the families will have to move.

calendar@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Warner reacquaints audiences with Joe E. Brown

Though he’s best known these days as the millionaire momma’s boy Osgood Fielding III in Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic “Some Like It Hot,” comic actor Joe E. Brown was one of Warner Brothers’ top stars in the 1930s. The former circus performer, semi-pro baseball player and Broadway star captivated audiences with his natural athletic ability, trademark yell, wide grin and crack comedic timing. Warner Archive has just released five of his comedies, including the 1931 pre-Code romp “Broad Minded,” which features Bela Lugosi; 1932′s “You Said a Mouthful” with Ginger Rogers pre-Fred Astaire; and 1933′s “Elmer the Great,” one of three baseball comedies he made at Warner, which was based on the Broadway play by Ring Lardner.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Matthew Weiner on reworking ‘Are You Here,’ ending ‘Mad Men’

One of the key shows people point to when discussing the relatively recent surge in quality on television is “Mad Men.” Thematically rich, visually stylized and emotionally evocative, the show uses what creator Matthew Weiner describes as “the traditional instruments of cinema” to make the small-screen leap to larger life.

So at a moment when “TV is the new cinema” or “TV is better than movies” have become such frequent media mantras, why has Weiner gone in the opposite direction to make a feature film?

“Are You Here,” though not technically his debut film — he directed and starred in the little-seen 1996 film “What Do You Do All Day” — is his first major project since the launch of the series that has won him a shelf-full of Emmys.

Weiner’s move comes at a time when many filmmakers and actors are going the other way. Just recently it was announced that director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose upcoming “Birdman” is one of the most anticipated fall films, will be making his first entry into television for the cable network Starz. And there is the continuing Soderbergh Situation, as after his declarations of retiring from cinema, Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh recently directed, shot and edited all 10 episodes of Cinemax’s “The Knick,” with word he will be back for Season 2.

In “Are You Here,” written and directed by Weiner, small-market television weatherman Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson) and unstable self-styled author Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis) are best friends, bonded by time and a mutual love of losing themselves to getting loaded. After Ben’s estranged father dies, he comes into a substantial inheritance, leading to Steve cleaning up by getting sober and Ben straightening out by going on mood-stabilizing medication.

The film, opening Aug. 22 and released by Millennium Entertainment, has a specific tone — “a comedy with reality in it,” is how Weiner describes it. Both actors toy with their on-screen personas — Wilson the lackadaisical lothario and Galifianakis the lost goofball, turned into more responsible adults. The film takes what might be the premise for a buddy-based sitcom and transforms it into a vehicle for an emotionally nuanced look at friendship, growth and gratitude.

For Weiner, the distinctions and divisions between television and film that outsiders might get hung up on stem from engines more economic than creative. “I have a less artistic view of that whole shift, when I hear about TV being the new whatever-it-is,” he said. “I’m here to tell stories; I don’t even think about it.

“That’s all happening in a world of hype that’s unrelated to anything. It really is. There was an economic boom in TV is what happened. These small channels that were in a lot of homes but couldn’t get any attention could raise a lot of revenue with shows that were very specific. At the same time, in a parallel universe, the movie business has gone so broadly international that it feels like silent film.”

For a recent interview, Weiner was in the longtime production offices for “Mad Men” near downtown L.A., where he is overseeing post-production on the final episodes of the show. (He expects to be finished in October, with the remaining episodes closely guarded until airing next year.) He proudly points out a framed blow-up of the venerated French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma with “Mad Men” actress January Jones on the cover.

Weiner used much of the same creative team he has been involved with on “Mad Men” on the film, though instead of a moody period drama, they were creating a bright, contemporary comedy. The film’s creative back story also winds its way around “Mad Men.” He wrote the pilot for “Mad Men” before being hired as a writer on “The Sopranos” and then wrote the script that became “Are You Here” in between two seasons of his work on that landmark mobster drama.

Once “Mad Men” became a success, he struggled to find the time and resources to make the movie. Ultimately he had to shoot the movie, go off and do Season 6 of “Mad Men,” and then return after that to edit and finish the film, racing to get ready for its premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Though he says it didn’t feel as bad to him as some have depicted, “Are You Here” received a muted response when it first premiered last fall. (It was then called “You Are Here.”) Weiner now concedes the film was unfinished. He since has stripped away some of the music, reshaped the narrative and made the film a few minutes longer. The revisions have been to embrace the film’s specificity of tone, instead of, as he put it, “trying to an turn an orange into an apple because I was unsure about loving oranges.”

The processes of TV and film are certainly different. Movies are designed to end, where television series are created to continue. For Weiner, who said he uses writing for exploration and discovery, creating something with the definite shape of “Are You Here” has been different from the ongoing process of “Mad Men.”

“Ending the series — which now I’ve done at least on paper, I haven’t finished editing the last episode — it was a total revelation to me,” said Weiner. “This is not part of writing TV, resolving things. You are propelling yourself into next season, the next episode. You can kill a character off or have someone leave the show, but it isn’t the same as ending the entire thing. And the movie is its own world. That was a big difference for me.”

It is worth noting that another fabled show runner, David Chase, creator of “The Sopranos,” also followed up his groundbreaking accomplishments on television by making a feature film, “Not Fade Away.” Though the film was lost in the shuffle of the year-end release scrum of 2012, it is a beguiling work of nostalgic reflection and emotional resonance.

In its portrayal of people rediscovering themselves, “Are You Here” explores the provisional victories people face along their way. “There is a happy ending, but it has the sense of being like real life, you don’t know if it will stick,” he said. “It’s like, this is good for now and it’s better than it was.”

Even with the title change and revisions, his film may have a hard time overcoming the perceptions created by its muddled unveiling. And what next from a man who has rewritten the rules of television and now tried his hand at moviemaking? Weiner hopes to soon stage a recently written play.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Things go boom in ‘The Expendables 3′ to ho-hum effect

They may be expendable, but there sure are a lot of them.

A total of 17 actors, starting with series instigator and star Sylvester Stallone, get their names above the title on “The Expendables 3,” playing returning members of this venerable mob of mercenaries as well as former and future Expendables and even Expendable auxiliaries. That’s a hell of a lot of folks who don’t seem to care whether they live or die as long as a given mission succeeds.

With some of their members looking old enough to apply for joint membership in the RED (Retired Extremely Dangerous) action franchise, “Expendables 3″ has tried to make a virtue of necessity and construct a film about younger types muscling their sclerotic compatriots out of a job. That may sound interesting, but it’s really not.

Instead, as directed by Patrick Hughes and written by Stallone and Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, “Expendables 3″ is a kind of ho-hum experience, wherein a lot of bullets are expended and a lot of structures exploded to minimal dramatic effect.

Though the older actors have the biggest names — in addition to Stallone these include Antonio Banderas, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger — they also look increasingly dubious as elements in an action-hero franchise.

Schwarzenegger, returning as Expendable auxiliary Trench Mauser, looks especially shaky (maybe being California’s governor was harder than it seemed). When Mauser says, “I’m getting out of this business, and so should you,” he really seems to mean it.

As for Stallone, he looks remarkably fit for a man of 68, but the actor’s varnished persona has so raised impassivity to an art form that killing people seems to come easier to him than actually talking to them.

“Expendables 3″ finds Stallone returning as head Expendable Barney Ross, the man whose team of mercenaries government operatives like the CIA’s Max Drummer (Ford) turn to when they don’t want to get their hands dirty doing particularly messy jobs.

The film opens, however, with a bit of personal business as Ross and company attack a heavily guarded train in some unnamed hellhole to rescue Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), who had been an Expendable back in the day before getting unaccountably imprisoned.

Without so much as pausing for breath, the guys head for Somalia, where they are charged with stopping nefarious weapons smuggling. They get the shock of their lives when they discover that the smuggler in chief is Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson), another former Expendable (these guys are everywhere, like Wesleyan film school graduates), who has fully embraced the dark side. Barney Ross for one gets so upset he forgets to blink. Really.

Understandably worried about the health of his aging minions and concerned as well that miscreants played by Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Jet Li and Randy Couture are getting too long in the tooth to bring the unbearably evil Stonebanks to justice, Ross cuts his team loose. Then he does what any of us would do, he relies on mercenary recruiter Bonaparte (an unlikely Kelsey Grammer) to point him in the right direction.

As a result, a quartet of newly minted Expendables played by Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey (as the world’s top female mixed martial artist, she makes the biggest impression), Glen Powell and Victor Ortiz, joins the team. Space is also made for an overeager veteran named Galgo (Banderas) who is as garrulous as Stallone is zombified.

This younger group is highly competent and even teases Barney about his age (“That’s a great plan,” one of them says, “if it was 1988″), but if you think you’ve seen the last of the old crew, you underestimate the predictability of this kind of movie-making.

In addition to a great deal of bloodless (which is kind of a relief) PG-13 action, “Expendables 3″ has a surfeit of the kind of tedious macho dialogue these films are known for. When Drummer returns to action and tells the gang, “I haven’t had so much fun in years,” it’s not likely the audience will be in full agreement.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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‘The Expendables 3′

MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence including intense sustained gun battles and fight scenes, and for language

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

Playing: In general release

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

‘Calvary’ could mark a signature role in Brendan Gleeson’s career

His characters have flung swords, absolved sins and robbed homes in the pitch of night. They have been bearded and shaven, light on their feet, weighted with doubt. They have yearned for and granted wisdom and have traded on a smile that has the pull of a tide. Like many Irishmen, they can break a heart or draw a laugh with the twist of a phrase.

“You know,” said Brendan Gleeson, looking over a menu in Beverly Hills. “I’m going to try an ‘egg in the hole’ simply because I don’t know what it is.” As the waiter slipped away, Gleeson, who can steal a scene from the edge of a frame, talked Irish literature, revealing as much about Samuel Beckett as he did about the many roles he has played since those ragged days on Dublin stages.

“There’s a real harshness and grit to it,” he said. “It’s very acerbic and there’s an undertone of grief and tragedy, and then hilarity comes in to wipe it up.”

Gleeson was a noted actor at home but largely overlooked abroad until he drew international acclaim in 1995 as the mud-spattered warrior Hamish in Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.” He went on to roles as a Civil War era minstrel in “Cold Mountain,” a hit man with a conscience and a sense of aesthetics in “In Bruges,” the eccentric wizard Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films and a tactless and boozing policeman in “The Guard.” The portrayals linger in the mind, like friends gathered around a midnight door.

But his latest role as Father James, a village priest burdened with the world’s sins, has moved him front and center in “Calvary.” It is a finely honed, understated performance certain to enhance Gleeson’s global appeal beyond that of a gifted character actor. The film’s writer-director, John Michael McDonagh, who also directed “The Guard,” said of Gleeson’s incarnation: “All those emotions on his face. He’s running the gamut on everything he can do as an actor. It was a master class. I think he’s on people’s radar, but this may be the one that puts him over the top. I hope so.”

Edged with suffering and humor, “Calvary” follows Father James, a widower and recovering alcoholic whose parishioners have been betrayed by the Roman Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals and Ireland’s corrupt economy. A priest who came late to his calling, Father James lives in a sparse white room of picture-less walls and ministers to a flock that includes a butcher who beats his wife and a barkeep facing foreclosure. Their lives entangle amid the dark cliffs and sweeping green fields along the North Atlantic.

The opening scene sets a menacing tone. A Caravaggio-like light shining on his russet-gray beard, Father James sits in a confessional when the voice of a penitent cuts through the scrim. “I’m going to kill you because you are innocent,” says the unknown man who was sexually abused by a priest as a boy. “There’s no point in killing a bad priest, but killing a good one, that’d be a shock.”

Gleeson’s face — filmed in single shot — slips across disbelief, pity, fear, scorn and defiance. The threat echoes through the film as Father James, a black-cassocked figure of virtue, resolve and cutting wit, struggles with his own transgressions. He is a righteous man counted among the evil.

“What if you had dedicated your life to something [only] to be included in all the bile and vitriol that’s associated with pedophilia?,” Gleeson said. “It’s a smirch that never goes away…. If you dedicated yourself to serving the good, how would you cope with that?”

Anthony Lane, who began his New Yorker review “Thank God for Brendan Gleeson,” wrote that in “Gleeson — in his proud bearing and lamenting gaze — we see the plight of a lonely believer in a world beyond belief.” The Guardian in London said: “Gleeson is majestic…. Here, at least, is a Christ we can relate to.”

Gleeson said “Calvary” is a wider metaphor for disturbing times. “It’s a commitment to compassion…. Leadership and authority have proven unworthy of trust. There’s nothing that eats away at the soul more than a lack of trust,” he said. “People are politically and financially worried and then, in the church, they appear to have been betrayed by the leadership. So how do you believe human beings are worthy of investment in human terms?”

He paused and smiled, saying he hoped the film won’t have tourists canceling trips to Ireland over fears of being “assaulted with buckets of cynicism when they get off the plane.”

‘Huge and tiny’

Damp hair combed back, face broad and etched with lines, Gleeson’s bearing is palpable. He has the gleam of a prankster and the unadorned integrity of a working man; cutlery seems small in his hands. He can be self-deprecating and nostalgic when recounting boyhood days and wind swept coasts. He is, like many of his countrymen, a lyrical realist with a seam of pride. “We can be huge and tiny all in the same breath,” he said.

His wellspring as an actor is an ability to effortlessly slide across moods. “It’s all there without him showing us,” said Chris O’Dowd, who also stars in “Calvary.” “He’s got the map of the world on his face.”

“I’m never going to be a conventional leading man as such in terms of a kind of eye candy and all that stuff,” said Gleeson, 59, sitting with a coffee in the morning sun, a faint edge in his voice. “That’s not said with any bitterness. I get the whole thing…. I don’t know how ‘Calvary’ is going to be received here. I would like it to mean that people will trust me with a film.”

The son of a tax office worker and strict Catholic, Gleeson, who grew up in Dublin and was accustomed to confessionals, began in theater in the 1970s. He didn’t see it as a “viable occupation” back then and worried that if he acted full time, “I might lose the joy of it…. I wanted to do it on my own terms. I didn’t want to be making soap powder commercials.” He took a job in the health department — “bored out of my head” — and then followed his brother’s cue and returned to college to become a teacher of Gaelic and English.

“Acting and teaching are alike, you’re trying to impart a few truths,” he said. “I taught teenage boys who were struggling and trying to figure out who they were…. But I had forgotten how much you laugh as a teenager.”

He started acting in plays about suburbia written by Paul Mercier, a founder of the Passion Machine theater company. The works were staged in an old bingo hall: “We renamed it the SFX Center, and we used to get calls from people who thought it was a sex center,” he said. “It was all very invigorating, and it felt constructive and creative.”

‘Let’s Be Cops’ wastes a sharp comic premise

There’s an appealing hint of misadventure in a title like “Let’s Be Cops,” as well as in the first few scenes in which down-on-their-luck roommates Ryan (Jake Johnson), a failed football player, and Justin (Damon Wayans Jr.), a video game designer, realize the power rush of impersonating authority.

After the humiliation of mistakenly wearing costumes to a snooty mask party, they mope along the Sunset Strip until they realize the demeanor of everyone around them changes: Strangers move out of the way, party girls treat them as hot guys in uniform and “Freeze!” becomes a magical time-stopper. They even agree to be fake fake cops for a group of middle-aged women who take them to be strippers.

Like any sharp comic premise, the promising tang of something anarchically amusing is in the air, which makes the rote, slipshod and unfunny rest of the movie all the more dispiriting — like a drug that’s as much fun as precinct paperwork.

“Let’s Be Cops” is its own movie in disguise: a role-playing romp that’s actually a generic buddy-cop movie. Director Luke Greenfield and his co-writer, Nicholas Thomas, saddle their newly transgressive bros with an uninspired heroes-and-villains story involving Russian gangsters threatening immigrant cafe owners and the pretty waitress (Nina Dobrev) who becomes Justin’s new girlfriend. When Andy Garcia shows up as the criminal overlord, you know he’s not supposed to be funny. That’s not a good sign.

Even the shoehorning in of an emotional trajectory for Ryan and Justin — Ryan’s found a career calling! Justin learns to be assertive! — feels like something out of a recruitment video for the police force rather than a rascally comedy dismantling the culture of police from within.

Johnson and Wayans are likable enough. They have a rapport from their work together on the sitcom “New Girl” that they readily take advantage of here. But the movie relies too much on the same comic tension in each scene: Johnson is the gung-ho one, Wayans says no (a lot).

There’s a slight spark when Keegan-Michael Key shows up as a dreadlocked Dominican henchman, but elsewhere, the movie’s reliance on dull improvisational exchanges over true comedic ingenuity grows tiresome. Even the raunch feels stale, with a naked sweaty fat man bit that assumes “Borat” was a lifetime ago.

The hilarious “22 Jump Street” was just this summer, however, which only exposes “Let’s Be Cops” as the one hopelessly trying to pass as a comedy.

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‘Let’s Be Cops’

MPAA rating: R for language including sexual references, graphic nudity, violence and drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Playing: In general release

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times