Aging stars still have the moves in “The Expendables 2″

They are well-armed, well trained, expertly synchronized. They are fearless, loyal to one another and no job is too big or daunting. They also probably receive in the mail regular solicitations from AARP.

These are The Expendables, back for more — naturally, given the $266 million in worldwide box office returns from the first movie that came out in 2010.

Sylvester Stallone — although not at his fighting weight in his prime “Rocky” and “Rambo” era but still looking very buff for a 66-year-old — returns as Barney Ross, leader of a group of mercenary operatives to whom subtlety is an alien concept. They burst in, usually uninvited, on their machinery, guns of all calibers blazing away. In their wake they leave a lot of bodies and wreckage, with mission accomplished.

“The Expendables 2″ does have a plot but the real showcase is the action. The draw of the original 2010 movie was bringing together a handful of proven action stars to join Stallone in the festivities: Jason Statham (age 44), Jet Li (49), Dolph Lundgren (54), and although not as high-profile as these guys but still impressive specimens Randy Couture (49) and Terry Crews (the baby of the group at 44 but 10 months younger than Statham). Plus there was the promise of more appearances by Bruce Willis (57) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (65).

Simon West is the director and he broke into the field with a bang in 1997 with “Con Air.” Stallone co-wrote the script with Richard Wenk, recreating the characters from Dave Callaham’s “The Expendables” screenplay.

Among the amusements of “The Expendables” are the names Callaham attached to these guys. It starts at the top with Stallone’s Barney — not a name one associates with a killing machine. Then there is Lee Christmas (Statham), Yin Yang (Li), Hale Caesar (Crews), Toll Road (Couture) and finally the only one with a name that sings testosterone — Lundgren’s Gunner Jensen.

After a successful mission in which they rescue a big-time Chinese banker, and oh by the way also save Trench (Schwarzenegger), the Expendables barely have time to soak up the beer and savor some R&R when Church (Willis) shows up, calling in a debt. It’s an easy mission, Church promises Ross — just extract the contents from a safe in a plane that was shot down in the hinterlands of the former USSR. There is one twist, however. They have to bring along on the mission Maggie (Nan Yu), who can crack the safe’s constantly changing entry code.

Barney expresses his reluctance to have a woman on board, but when she comes thundering up on a motorcycle to meet Barney, it is a no-brainer she will turn out to be very useful, physically as well as mentally.

There is a new guy in the group, a sharpshooter named Billy the Kid. He looks like he could be Thor’s younger brother, minus the long hair. In fact, he is. Billy is played by Chris Hemsworth’s kid brother Liam, who also happens to be engaged to Miley Cyrus (although stories are coming out that the engagement may be in trouble). Before going on the mission, Billy tells Barney this is his last one, as he wants to settle down with his nurse girlfriend whom he met while serving in Afghanistan. This of course leaves you with a bad feeling about his chances for survival.

The extraction of the contents is a success, but to no surprise there is a complication. The Expendables find themselves outmanned, outgunned and at a disadvantage when confronted by The Sangs, sort of a cartel that has its hands in everything. They are led by Vilain (cute play on the spelling), played by Jean-Claude Van Damme (51), making a return to the action genre but this time on the bad guy side of the ledger. He is after the contents of the safe, which is just a device that reveals the location of a stash of weapons-grade plutonium left over from The Cold War. Vilain wants to get his hands on the stuff and sell it to a highest bidder for a nifty profit.

As if that is not enough to rile up the Expendables, there also is the revenge factor.

Also returning to the action movie world after a sabbatical is Chuck Norris (72) as Booker, a guy who works as a solitary entity in picking off members of The Sang. Naturally, there are references to “lone wolf” when he’s around, a nod to his 1983 movie. Also, there are silly lines about “terminator” and several plays on Schwarzenegger’s famous “I’ll be back.”

“The Expendables 2″ is a popcorn movie through and through — a few obligatory quiet moments for character development, the natural sarcasm of guys goofing on each other, and loads of noisy action, from heavy artillery to knives to feet and fists.

For some reason, Li, after a brilliantly choreographed scene in which he dispatches a half-dozen guys using frying pans, literally drops out of the picture and is never seen again. On the plus side, the inevitable one-on-one between Stallone and Van Damme does not disappoint. It is brutal but not overly long as some of these slug-fests become, crossing the line into absurdity.

“ParaNorman”: Seeing dead people and getting a call to halt a curse

It was inevitable that zombies would lurch their way into the ever expanding realm of animated features. Indeed, in this latter part of 2012, the genre will see revisits to grand old horror superstars — Dracula (“Hotel Transylvania”) and Frankenstein (“Frankenweenie”).

For now, “ParaNorman” is on the screen. This feature is from Laika Entertainment, which produced “Coraline.” Chris Butler, who was the storyboard supervisor for “Coraline,” wrote the screenplay and co-directed with Sam Fell. This is Butler’s directorial debut, but Fell has had experience at the helm with “The Tale of Despereaux” and “Flushed Away.”

“ParaNorman” is a familiar story of a misfit who becomes a reluctant hero. It does have a touch of “The Sixth Sense” in that the lead character sees dead people. In fact, Butler credits “The Sixth Sense” with helping him develop the character of Norman Babcock, a boy who is more at ease talking to the departed than to live people. He is a loner whose sanctuary is his monster-themed bedroom.

When not cooped up in his room, he is usually watching scary movies with his grandmother (voice of Elaine Stritch), who happens to be deceased.

At school, Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who played the son in the somber “The Road”) is ridiculed, especially by the bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who was Red Mist in “Kick-Ass”). Norman, with his invisible friends, is able to cope, so is not all that eager to pal around with another put-upon kid, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who along with obesity has allergies, IBS and perspires excessively.

Norman’s life, though not idyllic, is OK, until he is confronted by his estranged, and strange, uncle, Mr. Penderghast (John Goodman). Knowing his time is running out, Penderghast tells Norman it is the boy’s duty to take on the responsibility Penderghast assumed all his life. The old man also can see and communicate with dead people, and it has been his duty for years to ward off a curse that has hovered over the town of Blithe Hollow since the 18th century, when town leaders tried and executed a young girl for being a witch. Sense then, the girl, naturally still angry, has assumed power and can raise out of their graves those people who condemned her, making them the walking dead, aka zombies.

Supposedly, the task Norman inherits is easy. He just has to conduct a yearly chore of going to the graveyard where townsfolk, who executed the alleged witch, and the girl are buried, and read from a book Penderghast has left for him. The book supposedly prevents the girl from raising the dead.

Thanks to Alvin’s intervention, Norman is not able to do the ritual before sundown of the designated day, and thus the deceased townsfolk are liberated from their graves and the girl witch, now with enormous power, also is set loose.

Through twists of fate, Norman finds himself with an unlikely group of allies to help him save the town from the curse: Alvin, Neil, Neil’s teenage brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) and Norman’s teenage sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick).

“ParaNorman” explores the lessons of accepting those who are different, the value of kindness and forgiveness and the dangers of mob mentality. And although it is being marketed as a movie for children, it definitely has a Gothic horror quality, not to mention some gross moments, that would make this film too intense for really young children. Directors Butler and Fell in pre-release interviews said they did not want to back away from the scary aspects, saying it was a safe way for young audiences to experience the emotion of fear.

“Avengers” return is planned
“The Avengers” superhero sequel will be hitting the theaters on May 1, 2015,
according to Disney and its Marvel Studios unit.

Joss Whedon will be back to write and direct the sequel, which has not been titled yet. Expected to appear will be the Marvel heroes Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). There was no word on whether Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) or Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) will be back, but it seems likely.

Before then, Marvel will be offering follow-up films: Downey’s “Iron Man 3″ is due out
May 2013, followed by Hemsworth’s “Thor” sequel in November 2013 and
Evans’ “Captain America” sequel in April 2014.

Some notable DVD releases
This week: “Chimpanzee” and “The Dictator.”
“Battleship,” one of the early summer releases — late spring actually — and a box office disappointment, will be coming out Aug. 28
Sept. 4 will see the release of what has to be a cheesy affair, “Piranha 3DD,” while the Jason Statham action movie “Safe” is also due out that day.
“Snow White and the Huntsman,” getting a lot of publicity of late because of the reported fling between star Kristen Stewart and director Rupert Sanders, will be out on DVD on Sept. 11.
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” an upbeat romance movie for the older generation, will be out on Sept. 18, as will be another Joss Whedon-written thriller, “The Cabin in the Woods.”
And in early October, in time for Halloween: “Dark Shadows” on Oct. 2 and “The Raven” on Oct. 9.

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