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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Review: Parental Guidance

Parental Guidance Suggested But Not Recommended

By Chris Sabga



Release Date: December 25, 2012 – U.S.
Rating: PG
Genre: Comedy
Running Time: 128 minutes
Director: Andy Fickman
Writers: Lisa Addario, Joe Syracuse
Cast: Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, 
Tom Everett Scott, Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, 
Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, Gedde Watanabe


When the kids in "Parental Guidance" are upset, they're instructed to "use their words" instead of lashing out. I will try to "use my words" too.

Actually, the movie starts out promisingly enough. It helps to have actors the caliber of Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, and Marisa Tomei. They're a joy to watch. They can roll right through weak dialogue and wring out the occasional laugh from cheesy gags that would fall completely flat in the hands of a lesser performer. It's similar to the effect Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman had on the otherwise mediocre "The Bucket List." The right people can elevate middling material – up to a certain point, anyway.

Alice and Phil (Tomei and Tom Everett Scott) have to go away for the week and can't leave their young children home alone. Artie and Diane (Crystal and Midler) are tired of being "the other grandparents" and agree to babysit the brood, which consists of Harper, Turner, and Barker (Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf).

I could've sworn that I had misheard the youngest son's name for the entire film, but it actually is Barker. Yes, they named their child after the sound a dog makes. (My apologies – and condolences – to any Barkers who might be reading this.)

Naturally, the grandparents are more "old school" in their techniques, while the younger parents take a more "modern" approach to raising their kids: no sugar, no spanking, and definitely no "Saw" movies. Those poor, deprived children!

Under the "care" of their grandparents:

  • The kids go crazy with cake and make a mess of the entire kitchen. 
  • Billy Crystal's character shares a toilet with a 4-year-old boy who is trying to have a bowel movement. They're actually seated together. Uh huh. Who does that? And while it's happening, they sing about it. Then a person outside the stall starts singing and dancing to the "music" too. Several other onlookers just stand there in absolute bewilderment. Why isn't Billy Crystal in jail? 
  • A toddler pees on pro skater Tony Hawk.
  • Billy gets hit between the "crystals" with a baseball bat and then vomits all over the boy who did it. 

Some will undoubtedly find all of that very funny. I'm not among the amused. I couldn't wait for those excruciating scenes – and others like them – to be over.

But the movie does have a few bright spots.

There's Mr. Cheng (Gedde Watanabe). He's a restaurant owner who also waits tables. He may even be the host too. And he delivers! If that wasn't enough, he's also available to visit his clientele for important family occasions. Why can't I get that kind of service from my local Chinese – excuse me, "Pan-Asian" – restaurant?

His funniest lines involve an imaginary kangaroo named Carl.

It's all pretty silly, but Gedde Watanabe makes the most of what he's given and steals every scene he's in. That's pretty impressive against the likes of Crystal, Midler, and Tomei.

As the story progresses, the kids get to know their grandparents better and vice versa. It's a well-worn formula, but those quieter interludes are far more effective than the loud, obnoxious slapstick gags and crude potty humor. There's a "big moment" near the end – every movie like this has one – and I have to admit, it got to me a little bit.

"Parental Guidance" isn't a great film. It's not even a good one. But it does have a few memorable bits and pieces that are worth revisiting for five or ten minutes while flipping through channels.  

Monday, April 22, 2013

Review: 42

Jackie Robinson Defies the Odds  

By Chris Sabga



Release Date: April 12, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sports
Running Time: 128 minutes
Director: Brian Helgeland
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, 
Nicole Beharie, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black, 
T.R. Knight, Toby Huss, Christopher Meloni, 
Andre Holland, Alan Tudyk, Hamish Linklater, 
John C. McGinley, Max Gail, James Pickens Jr.


Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) faces racism and discrimination in almost every scene of "42." The never-ending litany of bigotry may initially seem repetitive, but its overall effect is downright chilling. You come to realize just how much pure, raw hatred Major League Baseball's first black player had to deal with – simply for the right to do his job. It gets so bad that even the mere introduction of a new white character in the film becomes an anxious and uncomfortable moment on par with the tensest thriller.

Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) desperately wants to turn his Brooklyn Dodgers around. He proposes a radical solution: a Negro ballplayer. His assistants (played by T.R. Knight and Toby Huss) are aghast. But Rickey won't be dissuaded. He wants to make money and win! Robinson can help him do both. Before then, black baseball players were restricted to their own separate Negro Leagues. Robinson will make history as the first to cross over into the whites-only Major Leagues as #42 for the Dodgers.

Harrison Ford goes out of his way to create a true character. He is made to look physically older and he has altered his facial expressions for the role. Certainly, no one can accuse Ford of playing himself. It's a complete transformation. His version of Mr. Rickey is a cute grandpa with spunk. He's understanding and sympathetic at the right moments but also tough-as-nails when he has to be.

In addition to the aforementioned T.R. Knight ("Grey's Anatomy"), the cast is comprised mostly of other top-notch TV veterans: Christopher Meloni ("Law and Order: SVU"), Andre Holland ("1600 Penn"), Alan Tudyk ("Firefly" and "Dollhouse"), Hamish Linklater ("The New Adventures of Old Christine"), John C. McGinley ("Scrubs"), Max Gail ("Barney Miller"), James Pickens Jr. ("Grey's"), and Peter Jurasik ("Babylon 5").

Former child stars Ryan Merriman ("The Deep End of the Ocean") and Lucas Black ("Sling Blade") play two of Robinson's teammates, Dixie Walker and Pee Wee Reese, respectively.

Nicole Beharie ("The Express") is also notable as Jackie's wife, Rachel Robinson.

Of the supporting actors, the two best performances probably come from Andre Holland and Alan Tudyk. Holland plays Wendell Smith, a black reporter who also becomes Robinson's friend, confidant, assistant, and even chauffeur. He faces challenges of his own. Holland infuses his character with just the right amount of admiration (for Robinson) and ambition (for himself). "Firefly" fan-favorite Tudyk portrays Ben Chapman, who both plays for and manages the Philadelphia Phillies. He's one of my favorite actors, but his character's racism is so vile and nauseating that I wanted to strangle him. I kept hoping someone in the movie would. It's impossible to stomach Chapman's disgusting behavior, but Tudyk's devotion to the role is easy to admire.

Where "42" really succeeds is in showing what the world was like in 1946 and 1947. It's one thing to read about separate bathrooms in a history book; this movie engulfs its audience with the toxic effects of that mindset and the toll it takes on Robinson, whom we come to care about deeply as the story progresses. Even some of his own teammates don't want to play with a "colored boy." But not all of them feel that way. The tide is turning. There's a touching scene near the end with #1 and #42 embracing on the field as teammates, friends, equals.  

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: The Place Beyond the Pines

Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper Cycle Through Life

By Chris Sabga



Release Date: March 29, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 140 minutes
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Writers: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, 
Darius Marder
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, 
Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen,
Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Rose Byrne, 
Mahershala Ali, Bruce Greenwood,
Harris Yulin


I went into "The Place Beyond the Pines" knowing nothing about it. Other than its two lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, I had no idea what to expect. I hadn't seen any trailers. I wasn't even sure which genre it fell under. To be honest, the name led me to expect a supernatural twist of some sort. Instead, I ended up watching a film that was realistic, gritty, and very much down to earth.

Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a motorcycle stuntman who works for a touring carnival company. Because of his job, he's never able to stick around the same place for very long. During one of his stops, he reconnects with a woman from his past. Romina (Eva Mendes) accepts a motorcycle ride from Luke to her house but doesn't invite him inside. There are reasons for that. Her current boyfriend, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), is only one of them. A possible solution to Luke's problems comes from a new friend, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who runs an auto repair shop.

Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) is a rookie police officer. He chose to become a cop instead of following in the footsteps of his father, Al (Harris Yulin), a retired judge. Avery is squeaky clean and respects the law, perhaps because he grew up around it. He and his dad have disagreements but seem very close. Jennifer (Rose Byrne), his wife, worries about the safety of the job. Some of his colleagues, including Deluca (Ray Liotta), have been at it longer; they’ve even had to pull out their gun a few times. 

If I seem sparse with details, there's a reason for that. Much more happens. It's better to just sit back and let everything unfold. The movie is divided sharply into three clear acts. It progresses at a leisurely pace, but the plot is always advancing. I was never bored. My eyes were glued to the screen. This is a film that knows how to tell a story!

Most of "The Place Beyond the Pines" is set in the New York town of Schenectady, but I kept trying to figure where and what the film's title was referring to. While watching and wondering, I checkmarked a few locations in my mind – all from key scenes, of course – that appeared to be possibilities. Well, as it turns out, Schenectady is a Mohawk Indian word that roughly translates into English as "the place beyond the pines." But the "place" in question could also represent a certain state of mind or moment of desperation.

Throughout the film, people do the right things for the wrong reasons or the wrong things for the right reasons, and yes, the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Sometimes decisions have to be made at the spur of the moment – without any time to calculate their effect. But all actions have consequences – some far-reaching. Such is the cycle of life.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Review: Emperor

Matthew Fox and Tommy Lee Jones Navigate a World After War

By Chris Sabga



Release Date: March 8, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama, History
Running Time: 105 minutes
Director: Peter Webber
Writers: Vera Blasi and David Klass (screenplay), 
Shiro Okamoto (book)
Cast:  Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, 
Eriko Hatsune, Masayoshi Haneda, 
Colin Moy, Takatar├┤ Kataoka


"Emperor" tells two different types of stories – it's an investigative procedural and a romance – but they're both about love.

U.S. General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox, "Lost") understands Japan in a way that most Americans cannot. When he was a student, he met and fell for a Japanese girl, Aya (Eriko Hatsune), who travelled to America all alone to attend college; and through their relationship, he comes to deeply admire her culture and country.

But eventually, inevitably, they're separated by war. 

General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) recognizes Fellers' knowledge of Japan and assigns him to investigate whether Japanese Emperor Hirohito (Takatar├┤ Kataoka) was responsible for ordering the attack on Pearl Harbor. To do that, Fellers will first have to locate and interrogate Hirohito's closest associates.

It's 1945 and World War II is over, but peace may be compromised if Hirohito is convicted and tried for war crimes because the Emperor is considered God by his people. However, the politicians in Washington – and their voters – are thirsty for justice. Parallels can, of course, be drawn to more recent conflicts – but the movie never makes any heavy-handed comparisons.

Another general, Richter (Colin Moy), was passed over for the assignment. Are his strong opinions about Fellers and MacArthur colored by sour grapes or genuine patriotic concern?

Is MacArthur pushing Fellers front and center into the investigation for the right reasons or simply because he needs a fall guy if the outcome backfires? After all, MacArthur has his own ambitions – such as a future bid for the Presidency.

Is General Fellers just a blind "Jap lover," as he's been accused? While investigating Hirohito, Fellers asks an assistant, Takahashi (Masayoshi Haneda), to focus solely on a more private matter: Aya's whereabouts. Fellers loves her, and yes, he loves her country too. He has fond memories of what Japan was like before it was devastated by war.

The film can be dry and slow at times, but Matthew Fox channels the same conviction and intensity he displayed as Jack on "Lost," and Tommy Lee Jones clearly has fun playing the old, bombastic MacArthur.

"Emperor" is unique because it shows the effects of World War II from Japan's perspective. Millions of Japanese lives, Fellers points out in a running narration, were "incinerated" in an instant by the Atomic Bomb. The backdrops – which range from lush bamboo trees and ornate Japanese homes to seedy bars and bombed wreckage – paint a picture of a country that's one step away from either collapse or recovery. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: The Man from Earth

Through the Centuries

By Chris Sabga



Release Date: November 13, 2007 – U.S.
Rating: NR
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Running Time: 87 minutes
Director: Richard Schenkman
Writer: Jerome Bixby
Cast: David Lee Smith, Tony Todd, 
John Billingsley, Ellen Crawford, 
Annika Peterson, William Katt, 
Alexis Thorpe, Richard Riehle       

    
I felt sucker-punched after watching Jerome Bixby's "The Man from Earth." It was recommended to me by someone on the internet who calls himself "Dirk." That should have been my first warning.

The premise: Several college professors get together to say goodbye to one of their colleagues, John Oldman (David Lee Smith), who is moving on from his current position. The rest of the movie – which takes place mostly in one room – is about the conversation they have.

Don't expect breathtaking audio or visuals; this type of film lives or dies on its dialogue. How about this for starters: Oldman reveals that he is 14 thousand years old, was originally a caveman, and doesn't age.  

Interested yet? It gets better (or worse, depending on your perspective). The professor has much more to share – and he does. After all, he's seen and experienced the world several lifetimes over.

There are no major stars in "The Man from Earth" but it is populated by veteran actors you may recognize – including Tony Todd ("Candyman"), William Katt ("The Greatest American Hero"), and Richard Riehle ("Grounded for Life"). This film would not work without their reactions and responses to the story being told. And what a story it is!

What else can I say? Spoiling a movie like this would be a sin. Watching it sometimes feels like one. It is guaranteed to polarize. It may possibly incite a violently negative reaction in you. But it will make you think and you won't soon forget it.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Review: The Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher's Beautiful Mind

By Chris Sabga



Release Date: January 13, 2012 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama, Biography, History
Running Time: 105 minutes
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Writer: Abi Morgan
Cast: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, 
Olivia Colman, Roger Allam, Susan Brown, 
Nick Dunning, Nicholas Farrell, Iain Glen, 
Richard E. Grant, Anthony Head, Harry Lloyd, 
Michael Maloney, Alexandra Roach, Pip Torrens
Julian Wadham, Angus Wright


The beginning of "The Iron Lady" casts a pall of depression that the rest of the movie never recovers from. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) first appears as a feeble old woman in an advanced state of dementia.

That unwelcome and unpleasant plot device rears its ugly head for far too many minutes until Thatcher is finally shown as a much younger woman (played at first by Alexandra Roach, who ages into Streep eventually). Unfortunately, every time the main story builds momentum, the film switches back to the sick, elderly version of Thatcher. It's an unwanted distraction and intrusion. A ridiculous amount of time is wasted portraying her hallucinations and delusional conversations with her deceased husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). These obviously fictionalized scenes are extremely tacky, exploitative, and completely unnecessary.

If you're expecting a detailed look at Thatcher's political career and role in the Falklands War, how she handled the economic crisis in England at that time, or her close relationship with then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, read a book instead. The film races through her reign as Prime Minister. The historic events she presided over are presented as a series of "greatest hits" with one clip after another. Catchy tunes punctuate each moment. "The Iron Lady" would rather be a glorified music video. There's not a shred of depth to be found anywhere.

Some of the scenes involving Margaret Thatcher's years as Prime Minister are shot in a bizarre manner for seemingly no reason. The perspective is tilted, with several quick close-ups and cuts. Is this jarring camerawork supposed to signify that the older, demented version of Thatcher is thinking back to her younger glory days? Or maybe it's meant to imply that she began losing her faculties while she was still Prime Minister? Whatever the case may be, it serves no purpose and doesn't work at all.

As expected, Thatcher is presented as a woman of strength – but only sometimes and not nearly enough. More often than not, she's portrayed as an insecure little girl who's laughed at behind closed doors or from a safe distance. These scenes are probably designed to emphasize the barriers she broke through to reach the lofty heights of becoming Britain's first (and still only) female Prime Minister. Instead, they come across as silly and make her look weak and childish.

There's even a cutesy scene – obviously meant to be humorous – where her male political advisors instruct her to ditch her hat and pearl necklace. She insists on keeping the pearls because they were a gift from her husband. Factual or not, it feels more like Sarah Palin than Margaret Thatcher. Still, it does lighten the mood of the movie at the right time.

Even today, Thatcher remains one of the most controversial and polarizing figures in the history of British politics. People either adore the ground she walked on or spit on that same pavement at the mere mention of her name. But that, too, is glossed over – shown only in small bits and bites.

"The Iron Lady" is a shallow mess with a brain-dead script. Margaret Thatcher's incredible life seems to be an afterthought. This is really a movie about a sick, crazy old lady who sees dead people. The only saving grace is Meryl Streep's remarkable performance, for which she won an Academy Award. I wish she could have played the same part in a much better film.

Margaret Thatcher passed away on April 8, 2013 at the age of 87.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Remembering Roger Ebert

The Legendary Pulitzer Prize-Winning Film Critic Dies at 70 (1942-2013)

By Chris Sabga

"So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies." – Roger Ebert's final written words, posted on April 2, 2013, just two days before his death
__

I was only a little boy when I found Roger Ebert. Like most of you reading this, I discovered him through "Siskel & Ebert." They praised the movies they liked by raising "Two Thumbs Up" and dismissed the ones they didn't with "Two Thumbs Down." Even better was when they disagreed and their thumbs went in opposing directions.

I was instantly fascinated.

They were so intelligent and entertaining about my favorite topic in the whole world. They took it seriously. The show seemed like manna from Heaven to me and I watched it religiously.

In addition to their lively debates, "Siskel & Ebert" also featured short clips of the movies they were reviewing. That was a big deal in the '80s. Remember, there was no internet or YouTube back then.

One of my favorite moments on the show was when Roger started yelling at Gene for always insulting his weight (I believe the movie they were reviewing was "Heavyweights"). I was instantly taken aback because it was so raw and real – unlike most of what was shown on television then and now. There were many such moments throughout the history of the program.

Somewhere into the early-'90s, my mother came back from a thrift shop with a gift for me: the 1989 edition of "Roger Ebert's Movie Home Companion." The book was several years old by then, but that didn't matter. I was completely blown away. At the time, I had no idea that he even wrote reviews, or so many and so well. As much as I loved Ebert as a TV personality, his writing was on another level entirely.

My favorite Roger Ebert quote is: "It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it." That philosophy enabled me to enjoy films about gay cowboys ("Brokeback Mountain"), male ballet dancers ("Billy Elliot"), and various other subjects that I would've otherwise had little interest in. A good movie is a good movie; it doesn't matter what it's about, just how it's about it.

"Siskel & Ebert," and later Ebert's writing, showed me that there was more to the movies than just the flashy blockbusters everyone already knew about. They encouraged moviegoers to seek out those under-the-radar hidden gems just beneath the surface – yes, the silver screen surprises. In that way, this site owes an enormous debt to both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

The first example of many, for me, was hearing about "Before Sunrise" on "Siskel & Ebert" and later reading about it one of Roger's books. The premise is simple but tantalizing: two young people meet on a train and spend the evening together in Vienna. It was years before I could get my hands on it. When I finally did, on DVD, I wasn't disappointed. There was – and remains – nothing else quite like it (except for the wonderful sequels).

In addition to spotlighting movies, Ebert also championed his own critical influences – such as the sharp, biting wit of Pauline Kael, whose work and legacy live on as a result.

Of course, Ebert wasn't always right. In one controversial instance, he famous decried that video games could never be art. The truth is, just like the movies, most of them aren't but a few of them are.

I didn't agree with his reviews 100% of the time either – of course not – but you always knew where he stood. He had a soft spot for sci-fi (for example, he liked "Minority Report" somewhat more than I did) and movies about African-American issues (except for Tyler Perry). He was very open when it came to his own views on religion, race, and politics; they influenced his feelings about a film, and he admitted it. He never pretentiously pretended to be speaking on behalf of some "universal" voice; he brought only his likes and dislikes to everything he covered, and that's the way it should be. 

He could brilliantly dissect a movie. One of my favorite reviews of his was of the 2003 John Travolta film "Basic." I walked out of the theater on cloud nine. I loved it. Roger Ebert had the opposite reaction. In his review, he very precisely laid out what he felt didn't work about the movie. Even though we were diametrically opposed in our opinions, I understood exactly where he was coming from. It was great, logical writing.

Ebert was also way ahead of the curve about the 2009 Nicolas Cage movie "Knowing." It has a 33% "Rotten" score on RottenTomatoes.com – and a four-star review by Roger Ebert. He was right. It's not a perfect film, but it is pretty damn fantastic. I think history will validate his opinion.

He also had great taste in food. He loved Steak 'n Shake. "If I were to take President Obama and his family to dinner and the choice were up to me," he wrote, "it would be Steak 'n Shake – and they would be delighted."

His passion was such that he even wrote a cookbook – "The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker" – long after cancer had eroded his jaw and he was no longer able to speak or eat normal food.

Indeed, he wrote about much more than just movies in his final few years. His two pieces on loneliness – "All the lonely people" and "A meeting of solitudes" – are absolutely spellbinding.

I could throw around words like "tragic" to describe the medical issues Roger Ebert endured, but I'm not sure he would have approved of anyone's sympathy. He always wrote about his illness in such a straightforward, matter-of-fact way. Whether or not he would have agreed, his attitude and approach were admirable.

His health had been waning for over a decade, but his death still came as a sudden shock to most of his readers. Only two days before he died, he wrote about his plans for the future. He was going to take "a leave of presence" but that didn't mean he was going away. He still planned to write select reviews, and he was even working on launching a new website, Ebert Digital.

The last two reviews Roger Ebert posted while he was still alive were "The Host" and "From Up on Poppy Hill," both on March 27th. They each received two-and-a-half stars, which would ordinarily be a "Thumbs Down." His actual final review – yet to be published – was for Terence Malick's "To the Wonder." According to RogerEbert.com editor Jim Emerson, it was given three-and-a-half stars – thankfully a "Thumbs Up."

The world of film has lost its greatest advocate, and I've lost a major part of my childhood and life.

The balcony is closed.

R.I.P., Mr. Ebert.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Movies Starring Wrestlers: The Marine Series

John Cena, Ted DiBiase Jr., and The Miz Defend Their Loved Ones

By Chris Sabga

Believe or not, WWE Studios has pumped out three films in "The Marine" franchise already – starring pro wrestlers John Cena, Ted DiBiase (Jr.), and Mike "The Miz" Mizanin, respectively. But there's at least one "name actor" as well attached to each of them: Robert Patrick, Michael Rooker, and Neal McDonough do the honors. Even if you don't necessarily know their names, you'll probably recognize their faces from a variety of action franchises and other film projects.

Here's the breakdown on all three "Marine" movies:

The Marine – John Cena

John Triton (Cena) has been honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. He goes back home to his wife, Kate (Kelly Carlson). They decide to take a vacation, and it isn't long before they run into the
wrong element. At a gas station, Kate ends up being kidnapped by a
band of jewel thieves, led by Rome ("T2's" Robert Patrick). Then the chase is on through the back-roads and swamps of South Carolina.

Cena is okay, if a bit stiff at times. He comes across as sort of a low-rent Channing Tatum. But Robert Patrick has a blast chewing up the scenery. If Oscars were handed out for Actors Who Make The Most of a Bad Situation, Patrick would have a dozen statues on his mantle.

In pro wrestling, there's something called "no-selling." It's when a wrestler doesn't properly convey the effects of an opponent's "painful" move. "The Marine" is full of no-selling. In one particularly ridiculous scene, there's a massive explosion and Cena's character emerges without even a scratch. I suppose that's the cinematic equivalent of getting up shortly after being plastered over the head by a steel chair – without a drop of blood evident anywhere.

Action movies aren't exactly known for their realism, but Cena's Superman antics are too much, even for something like this. Then again, his wrestling matches are the same way.

"The Marine" is a silly dud, but it's almost worth seeing just for Robert Patrick's exuberance. He goes all out – joyfully putting everything he has into what he must know is a pretty bad script.

The Marine 2 – Ted DiBiase (Jr.)

A marine comes home from duty and goes on vacation with his wife, only for her to end up in grave danger. Sound familiar? Thankfully, Ted DiBiase (son of wrestling's famous "Million Dollar Man") has been cast as a different character. DiBiase trying to play Cena would have been a disaster.

This time, the action is set in an overseas Asian resort run by an arrogant American self-help writer (Darren Conner). Robin Linwood (Lara Cox) works for him. She and her husband, Joe (DiBiase), vacation there for its grand opening.

They soon run into another American: an ex-Army Airborne Ranger who calls himself Church (Michael Rooker). At first he seems a bit unhinged, which made me wonder if the movie was setting him up to be the villain. He would certainly be a worthy follow-up to Robert Patrick. Alas, we aren't quite that lucky.

Instead, the villains end up being a generic group of local terrorists who are rebelling against "The Great White Hope" Americanizing the area with an opulent resort. In a different kind of movie, this might have been an interesting message to explore. Obviously, in direct-to-DVD action fare like this, there's no time to dwell on the socio-political ramifications of America's growing influence on foreign nations.
 
It's up to the Marine to save the day and rescue his wife, her boss, and assorted other hostages. DiBiase isn't the most dynamic, charismatic actor, but he is natural and likeable. That's more than many of his wrestler-turned-thespian colleagues can say. That doesn't mean he's perfect though. In one scene, a torture sequence, he's required to raise his voice – and it sounds like he's channeling the cheesiness of Hulk Hogan. There's also a fight so obviously choreographed that it looks more like a dance number, complete with corny music.  

Still, DiBiase isn't bad at all – and neither is the movie, surprisingly. It's very reminiscent of the type of flick that was churned out en-masse in the 1980s. It does drag in spots, but for the most part, it's simple but effective and actually kind of fun.

It's just a shame that the villains are so dull. Wrestling is built on good guy vs. bad guy, and both sides have to be strong and entertaining. It doesn't work otherwise. Action movies are the same way. If Robert Patrick's crazed character from the first movie had been in this one instead, "The Marine 2" might have risen above the obscurity of the bargain bin scrapheap to become somewhat of a minor action hit.

The Marine 3: Homefront – Mike "The Miz" Mizanin

In the third installment of this series, a Marine returns home and ends up having to rescue his youngest sister. Needless to say, "The Marine" movies don't exactly vary their formula too much.

Jake Carter (Mizanin) is overprotective of his two sisters, Amanda (Camille Sullivan) and Lilly (Ashley Bell), and has a hair-trigger temper. It is hard for him to make the transition from the combat zone to civilian life.

Meanwhile, a psychopath bomber, Jonah (Neal McDonough, who previously opposed The Rock in "Walking Tall") is on a murderous rampage against greedy banks and corporations. Like "The Marine 2," a weighty political topic is introduced but never really explored on any serious level. That's perfectly okay though because it's par for the course in an action movie like this.

Ashley and her boyfriend, Darren (Jeff C. Ballard), witness a murder involving Jonah and his goons. Of them, Eckhert (Michael Eklund) makes the most of his minutes, creating a deranged but compelling character.

The two lovebirds are spotted and taken, and it's up to Jake to come to their aid. Standing in his way are the chief of police, Harkin (Jared Keeso), who is also his best friend, and a territorial FBI agent, Wells (Steve Bacic), who definitely isn't his best friend. 

Mike "The Miz" Mizanin is by far more comfortable and convincing in this type of role than either DiBiase or Cena. He comes across as a regular guy who just happens to be highly trained. By the end, he's bloody, bruised, and beaten down. It's a refreshing and realistic change from Super-Cena in the first movie. McDonough makes a credible villain. He takes the role seriously and conveys a nice mixture of intensity and calm. It's a very different performance from Patrick's in the first film, but it's just as good in its own way (and it's certainly miles ahead of the generic drones in the second).

Mizanin actually wasn't the original choice for the part. Stiffer-than-a-board pro wrestler Randy Orton ("That's What I Am") was initially cast – until complaints of his real-life dishonorable discharge from the Marine Corps surfaced. He was then dishonorably discharged from the movie, and before he could "go to the papers" about it, he was replaced by The Miz.

At the time, plugging Miz into the role seemed like a major head-scratcher. He was portraying a very weak, whiny, devious little mouse on WWE TV. He even sported a completely ridiculous chicken-hawk hairstyle. A manly Marine he was not. But that disparity is what initially interested me in the movie. Cast against type and seemingly illogical for the role, it was bound to be a big stretch for Mizanin. I was curious to see how – or if – The Miz could pull it off. To his credit, he transformed himself completely with a more rugged look (which he later retained for his wrestling persona) and made it work. Not only is he good at portraying a Marine, he's even better than his predecessors. 

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These aren't great films, but the two "Marine" sequels have their charms. This may be the only instance of a series that actually gets better with each progressive installment. The best part is that you don't even need to see all three to get the full picture. They're similar thematically but otherwise unrelated. You're safe just picking whichever one sounds good to you – if any of them do, that is.

A certain segment of the population still laps up those cheesy straight-to-video flicks starring Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme, even though they're both twenty years past their prime. WWE has the right idea inserting its young, athletic wrestlers into similar types of films. At least the WWE superstars are more convincing visually, and the acting and scripts are no worse than any of the other run-of-the-mill action movies produced today for home video. In some ways, they're a little bit better.

The "Marine" movies won't be confused with "Skyfall," "Die Hard," or any of today's big budget Hollywood extravaganzas, but they do serve as a slightly superior alternative to the latest bargain bin entries from Seagal, JCVD, and other aging action heroes from the '80s.