Tag Archives: sylvester stallone

Hesher (2010)

3 Oct

As Hollywood is generally chary of admitting the genuinely ugly into its ranks, the ability of its stars to ‘ugly up’ is a much cherished one. The paradox of fame is that the adulation brings with it a nagging urge to be viewed as a ‘serious artist’, a quest for authenticity and legitimacy that inevitably leads to a brief holiday from the glamorous trappings. And it often reaps dividends: Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman all picked up Oscars for their ‘bravery’, resorting to unflattering prosthesis in Kidman’s case. Action alpha males Sylvester Stallone and Vin Diesel tried this tactic with less success in ‘Copland’ (1997) and ‘Find Me Guilty’ (2006); Sly developing an impressive gut and Diesel donning a conspicuous toupee for nought. Ironically, Natalie Portman goes the other way in ‘Hesher’, forsaking the high-camp paranoia that earned her the plaudits in ‘Black Swan’ (2010).

T.J. (Devin Brochu) and his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), are struggling to come to terms with the death of their mother and wife (Monica Staggs). Paul is crippled by his grief, living in a pharmaceutical fog, meaning that T.J. is being raised by his ailing Grandmother (Piper Laurie). On one of his many lonely bike rides through the neighbourhood, T.J. encounters Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a pyromaniac misanthrope squatting in a derelict house. T.J. encounters Hesher on multiple occasions over the next few days as he tries to evade the attentions of the school bully, Dustin (Brandon Hill), and obsesses over Nicole (Natalie Portman), a decorous grocery store clerk who saves him from a beating at the hands of Dustin. Hesher slowly insinuates himself into T.J’s family life, providing some salutary life lessons in his brutally candid manner.

Spencer Susser’s debut feature channels the spirit of ‘Gummo’ (1997) and ‘Slacker’ (1991) in its blunt evocation of fringe culture, veering away from the whimsical explorations of suburban malaise that have deluged indie cinema – it hardly bears repeating that suburbia is not what it seems, and the awkward formality of the family meal is as trite now as it was in ‘American Beauty’ (1999). There is not a single moment when Susser’s wish to illustrate his abilities with a particular technique or stylistic flourish detracts from the naturalism; a trap so many young directors fall into. The screenplay – written by Susser and ‘Animal Kingdom’ creator David Michod – abandons the easy course in favour of a more nuanced, rewarding tack: Hesher could so easily have been a stoner caricature, but the character is imbued with such venom and menace as to negate any suggestion of that. Metallica’s music punctures the silence that holds sway over the violently banal backdrop; offering a portal into Hesher’s nihilistic mindset, the sudden bursts of ‘The Shortest Straw’ acting as his signature.

Levitt has developed from a fresh-faced sitcom star to one of the most accomplished actors of his generation, breaking away from his anodyne past and making difficult choices to amass a formidable body of work – we should relish him before he is lost to the franchise film for good. Levitt succeeds in delineating the character’s complexities, the rage and dislocation that fuels him, embodying the complexities of adolescence: the boorishness and hypersensitivity, the aggression and vulnerability. Brochu delivers the best breakthrough performance since Paul Dano in ‘L.I.E’ (2001), carrying the film with a poise that hints at a very bright future; while screen veteran Laurie is quietly devastating as the befuddled mater of her damaged clan. Wilson is mercifully lacking in affectation; while he can’t match Philip Seymour Hoffman when playing a wounded, ineffectual lump of a man, he exhibits laudable restraint. Portman proves to be the sole disappointment; she dons oversized glasses and frumpy clothes, but is never able to overcome her fame. She is never anything other than Natalie Portman, and as such her character’s battle between self-perception and reality carries little weight: a common problem for those striving to balance their public profile with creative contentment.

‘Hesher’ offers us a Generation X fable: Hesher is a harbinger of T.J’s impending adulthood; a spectre of chaos; a spirit of mischief. There is a strange sort of heroism to Hesher’s stance; he knows all the shortcuts within his circumscribed realm, exuding a Zen-like calm as he unleashes carnage upon a world he despises; grasping its harsh logic and taking it as his credo. But Hesher doesn’t heal the family’s wounds and enrich their lives, which would no doubt have been the case if this were a mainstream take on guardian angel lore. Refreshingly devoid of sentiment or irony, ‘Hesher’ plays it straight; which is not to say there isn’t humour, it just isn’t allowed to consume the film’s serious core and undermine its intent. ‘Hesher’ offers a vibrant, visceral alternative to the slew of identikit indie films being churned out by the Sundance factory system.

 

Portman: shy, retiring wallflower

 

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The Expendables (2010)

18 Sep

Boasting a cast filled with names that would have come with a considerable pricetag in around 1987 but now come as part of a nostalgia package, ‘The Expendables’ finds ‘Sly’ once again at the helm. Considering that his directorial credits include clunkers like ‘Staying Alive’ and ‘Paradise Alley’, his continuing ability to be allowed behind the camera can only be put down to the puzzling popularity of the recent ‘Rocky’ and ‘Rambo’ retreads.

In keeping with Hollywood’s current fondness for all things ‘80s, ‘The Expendables’ takes us back to the days when ‘Sly’ could overthrow a South-East Asian regime with only a headband, a vest, a machete and a snarl. While ostensibly set in the present, the film is a paean to the heyday of gung-ho actioners, when ‘Sly’, ‘Arnie’ and the like dispatched a raft of foreign baddies single-handedly, without a UN resolution in sight.

Our eponymous heroes are a band of hotshot mercenaries sent to a fictional Island in the Gulf of Mexico to depose a puppet regime controlled by a former CIA agent. There endeth the plot. ‘The Expendables’ is a testosterone-charged, loud, violent, ludicrous mid-life crisis of a movie, featuring a cast of Harley riding, tattooed, facially immobile men of advancing years desperately trying to convince us that they can still do everything they could do twenty years ago.
Replete with car chases, decapitations, explosions, physics-flaunting stunts and fiercely heterosexual male bonding, one can only hope that those involved are aware of just how silly the whole thing is. It stretches credibility to breaking point that these men, most of whom probably need help getting out of the bath these days, are capable of performing the physical feats on display here.

Stylistically, we see the usual bag of tricks at play; slow-motion brutality, rapid-fire editing, giddy camerawork, a bombastic score and some very conspicuous stuntmen – this film must have been an overtime bonanza for its stuntmen, who no doubt had to fill in for any strenuous activity its cast were required to perform; climbing flights of stairs, bending over, chewing, etc.

Stallone slurs his way through the film like a punch-drunk Rocky as gang leader Barney Ross, delivering his barely decipherable lines with all the animation of a sedated bear. Bruce Willis and the Governor of California provide blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos as Mr. Church and Trench, smirking their way through a string of smug in-jokes and laboured badinage. Jason Statham treats us to his usual mangled mix of accents as the wonderfully named Lee Christmas, hovering between South London and Southern California throughout. Dolph Lundgren delivers most of the memorable lines as the maverick outcast Gunnar Jensen, including such gems as ‘life’s a joke, Shitbird!’ and ‘need a facelift, pretty boy?”. Martial arts legend Jet Li’s sole role is to be the butt of jokes about his size as the appallingly named Yin Yang and Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke is totally wasted in an inconsequential peripheral role; though both make the best of the paltry material they’re given. But it’s Eric Roberts who steals the show as rogue agent James Monroe; evidently relishing this opportunity to get his teeth into such a hilariously over-the-top role and hamming it up accordingly.

Part of the problem is that there are too many people trying to do too much in too little time, with the consequence that every character is poorly developed. A perfunctory effort is made to give them some dimension – Christmas is in the midst of relationship strife, Yang has financial problems and Jensen is battling drug addiction – but it’s merely window dressing for the film’s real focus.

There is also some first-rate misogyny on display; the film features two women, both of whom are ‘damsels in distress’ relying on the big, strong men to protect them. At one point, Christmas says to his ex-girlfriend, “you should have waited for me, I was worth it,” after beating the tar out of her abusive new partner.

The final twenty minutes is a relentless cacophony of gunfire, explosions, burning flesh and jets of blood spouting from gaping flesh wounds; the film takes almost pornographic delight in the hundreds of corpses it racks up.

One has to wonder whether South and Central America is about to usurp the Middle East as the new home of the action movie villain; with a new generation of leaders antithetical to US objectives in the region. The General Garza character is firmly in the Chavez/Morales mould and, in the same way that Rambo’s right-wing fantasies chimed with Reagan’s worldview, ‘The Expendables’ seems to echo the feelings of the hawks in the State Department towards those regimes.

For all its bravado, ‘The Expendables’ is a depressing watch, akin to a veterans sporting event where men who were once at the top of their profession struggle to relive their glory days.

Just keep laughing an he'll put us in the sequel!