“The Last Stand” – 3.5 STARS

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It only took a couple of cameos to get Arnold Schwarzenegger back in form and now he’s back (yes I just said that) in “The Last Stand”. You would never doubt that this is a standard Schwarzenegger picture except for the fact that the days of the one-man-army seem to be gone. But don’t misunderstand me, Arnie still pumps a ton of lead, fires the one-liners, and kicks plenty of bad guy butt. It’s just that he’s older, he knows it, and the movie takes that into account. In fact, the movie has a lot of fun with it which is just one of the reasons why it works as a whole.

First off, this is an old school action picture and that will automatically turn off some people. Some will dismiss it as retro cheese while others will dismiss it as simply mindless entertainment. I can’t argue with either of those assessments other than to say it shouldn’t be dismissed. “The Last Stand” has its share of cheesiness but intentionally so. And it’s certainly not stimulating, thought-provoking cinema but it never pretends to be. It’s a simple, straightforward movie without an ounce of pretension and it.

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Schwarzenegger plays the sheriff of a small Arizona town named Sommerton which sits near the Mexican border. It’s a quiet little town and nothing happens there, that is until a local farmer (played by Harry Dean Stanton in a wonderful cameo) is found shot to death. It turns out his murder is connected to the escape of a powerful drug cartel boss in Las Vegas. The drug lord, named Cortez, is heading to the Mexican border and Sommerton is the only town that stands in his way. Needless to say, Arnie and company use the town as the last stand between Mexico and this murderous kingpin.

There’s a good supporting cast around Schwarzenegger even though no one goes to one of his films expecting Oscar caliber performances. I loved seeing Forest Whitaker in a prominent role. He plays the FBI agent who Cortez escaped from. The normally obnoxious Johnny Knoxville plays the village idiot and manages to keep his goofball schtick under control. The lovely Jaimie Alexander and Genesis Rodriguez both get moments to flex their tough girl muscles. Eduardo Noriega is a perfectly detestable villain and Peter Stormare has a blast as one of his hired hands. And then you have the always entertaining Luis Guzm√°n who is a a lot of fun and delivers several good laughs. None of these performances will knock your socks off, but were you really expecting them to? They go as far as the material allows them and for this kind of story that’s more than adequate.

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But c’mon, this is all about the action right? Director Kim Ji-woon brings a slick and stylish eye for action sequences. But what I like best is how he keeps his camera under control. So many of today’s action movies overuse quick cuts and herky-jerky cameras which makes impossible to see what’s going on. Ji-woon uses these techniques some but they never muddle the scene. Weather it’s a massive firefight or a 150 mph car chase through a corn field, he’s always in command of his camera. Now he does go heavy with the blood and some kills aren’t for the squeamish, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to letting out a “wow” or two.

The days of Arnold walking around shirtless with bowling ball biceps and taking out full armies by himself may be over but “The Last Stand” shows he’s still the king of the action flick. Look, this movie is exactly what it sets out to be and nothing else. The plot is pretty basic and there’s not one single surprise in the entire movie. But it’s also one wild ride and the perfect vehicle for Schwarzenegger. You get plenty of bangs, plenty of bullets, and plenty of bodies. You also get some pretty good laughs along the way. I don’t know about you, but that’s exactly what I want from a Schwarzenegger movie. Mission accomplished.

“CASA DE MI PADRE” – 2.5 STARS

“Casa de Mi Padre” is yet another potentially funny but underachieving¬†comedy starring Will Ferrell. ¬†This bizarre low-budget Spanish language movie spoofs everything from spaghetti westerns to Mexican telenovelas¬†and plays it all with a straight face. Now while I don’t know if there is a big audience for spoofs of Mexican soap opera westerns, it is quirky enough that, when combined with the puzzling adoration for Ferrell, it will attract some curious movie fans. As someone who’s not a big Ferrell guy, I went in with very tepid expectations but hope that I would be surprised. It certainly has its moments and certain gags work well, but in the end it felt like a haphazard Saturday Night Live skit stretched out to feature film length.

This may come as a surprise to you but in “Casa de Mi Padre”,¬†Ferrell plays a simple-minded dolt.¬†¬†His name is¬†Armando √Ālvarez¬†(which he¬†reminds us of throughout the picture) and he has grown up working on his father’s struggling ranch. Soon his brother and favorite son of his father¬†Ra√ļl¬†(Diego Luna) returns from making a name for himself in the business community. He’s accompanied by his beautiful fianc√©e¬†Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez) and their return marks what the family thinks will be the end of their financial¬†woes. But it turns out that Ra√ļl¬†is actually a drug dealer who has pushed into the territory of a powerful drug lord¬†known as Onza (Garc√≠a¬†Bernal). As you can imagine, this throws the family in the middle of an all out drug war, something that is quite pleasing to a dirty DEA agent (Nick Offerman) watching from a distance.

Reading the synopsis of the story doesn’t make you automatically think comedy. And as I was writing the synopsis it was really hard relating it to the way this movie is presented. The telenovela¬†style is almost immediately identified. The¬†melodramatic and stilted dialogue along with¬†the¬†actor’s serious deliveries and exaggerated mannerisms give the movie a uniquely goofy tone. And regardless of how cleverly absurd¬†the concept¬†is, frankly I begin to grow tired of it at the halfway mark. I’m not completely discrediting it because there are some genuinely funny moments, but there aren’t enough funny lines and funny gags to keep the movie going. And then there’s the dialogue itself – sometimes funny, but most of the time consisting of dull, repetitive, and drawn out conversations that almost seem more like filler than substance. Then there are the injections of several wacky musical interludes intended to be outrageous but I could have done without them.

But the movie doesn’t just¬†play around with¬†Mexican soap operas. It also spoofs sloppy, cheap¬†filmmaking and this was when the movie was at its funniest. There are several hysterical intentional “mistakes” scattered throughout the film such as a phone conversation where one party hangs up, we see the other party still talking in the next shot, then we see the first party talking on the phone as if they had never put the¬†receiver down. Then you have¬†a man clearly shot one time then we see him stagger around with two profound bullet wounds in his chest. There are¬†little “goofs” like these hidden all through the movie and I laughed each time I found one. Then there was the glaring, deliberately cheap production design. Several scenes feature obvious mannequin¬†body doubles. Then there are the poorly painted backgrounds, horrible tiger puppets, and a couple of clearly fake horseback riding sequences. There’s even a bigger intentional hiccup midway through the film but I’ll leave it to be discovered. These were hilarious moments that had me laughing whenever they popped up.

The movie also has its share of Tarantino-styled violence. There are¬†numerous slow-motion action takes and bloody gun battles. You can also see the movie takes from spaghetti westerns through a couple of showdowns as well as some of the conversations between Armando and his compadres. But¬†everything is done within the context of comedy. It’s just not done well enough to make “Casa de Mi Padre” anything more than a mediocre diversion. While it is a bit tamer that most of Ferrell’s other films, it still has enough of him and his humor to partially satisfy his fans. But¬†even though¬†it has a good concept and it does do some things really well, there’s just¬†wasn’t enough material here to keep me interested.

“MAN ON A LEDGE” – 2 1/2 STARS

Some movies can take a pretty preposterous concept and still make a fun and entertaining film out of it. There’s no denying that “Man on a Ledge” has a pretty preposterous concept. The question is, is “Man on a Ledge” a fun and entertaining movie? Well…kinda. Underneath the surface the movie has a fairly interesting premise. But it gets bogged down in¬†it’s occasionally lame dialogue, it’s run-of-the-mill characters, and some truly head-scratching moments.

Sam Worthington plays Nick Cassady, an ex-New York City Policeman who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for stealing a $40 million diamond from a shrewd and¬†unscrupulous businessman named Dave Englander (played by an alarmingly thin Ed Harris). After being notified of his father’s death, Nick¬†is allowed to attend the funeral where¬†he evades the guards and sets out to prove his innocence. His plan? To check into the Roosevelt Hotel, have a final meal, then climb out on the ledge of the building prepared to jump. It’s certainly not the normal approach one would take in trying to prove their innocence. Officer Marcus (Titus Welliver) arrives and takes charge of the scene and, at the request of Nick, calls in negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks).

Now it’s clear that there is more going on than just a man about to jump to his death. Nick has a bigger plan in motion that hinges on Lydia’s cooperation, the craftiness of his brother Joey (Jaimie¬†Bell) and Joey’s girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), and the rabid crowd that has gathered below. The story takes several different turns and throws a few twists at the audience, but it’s hard to fully invest in them. Things get¬†a little¬†outlandish¬†and it’s pretty hard to believe at times. Now in the defense of director Asger¬†Leth, he’s well aware that he’s¬†working with some wild material. He keep things moving at a crisp pace and he doesn’t drag the movie out longer that it needs to be. Also, Leth¬†really uses the camera well and I had read where they filmed several scenes with Worthington actually out on the ledge. Unfortunately the good looks of the film isn’t enough to save it from it’s glaring flaws.

There are¬†numerous¬†instances where the writing left me scratching my head. Some scenes will leave the audience asking themselves “Can the NYPD¬†really be this inept?” and “Is the movie making fun of New Yorkers¬†or are we really to believe that 99% of them are bloodthirsty animals?”. There are also¬†several cheesy¬†exchanges between characters that either feel¬†out-of-place or are just plain goofy. The film also features some of the same character types that we’ve seen in so many other movies. We have the wicked, wealthy corporate businessman. We get the typical corrupt cop. We even have the self-serving reporter who is more interested in getting the story that public safety. We’ve seen them all before.

You have to be impressed just looking at the movie’s strong cast. I like Sam Worthington even though he’s yet to really show much range in his performances. He’s actually quite good here even though the role doesn’t require as much from him as you might think. His New York accent does give way to his natural Australian accent in some scenes but he still gives a solid performance. Banks is also pretty good as is Edward Burns as a fellow negotiator. But the biggest problem is none of these performers can truly rise above the material which lets them down on numerous occasions. The always strong Ed Harris and Anthony Mackie as Nick’s former partner are terribly underused and should have been given more to do.

If you can put aside the flaws and suspend disbelief, there is some enjoyment to be found in “Man on a Ledge”. It’s impossible to take seriously and I have no doubt you’ll be shaking your head more than once. But “Man on a Ledge” is a harmless film with some cool action and fun moments. And while it’s a decent little afternoon diversion, it’s an action thriller that’s ultimately forgettable. Check it out if you have some free time. Otherwise, you can probably find something better to watch.