Archive for January 2008

Rambo

January 25, 2008

For years, if a director was trying to get an R rating from the MPAA instead of the box-office-death NC-17, he or she was not allowed to cite precedent (i.e., “Hey, that movie showed a severed head rolling down three flights of stairs — why can’t mine?”). But now that filmmakers can cite precedent, their go-to movie will likely be Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, possibly the most violent movie ever to get an R rating and a wide release in America. All horror directors should now genuflect towards Stallone for enabling them to indulge in stabbings, shootings, body parts spinning through the air, intestines spilling out, children bayoneted, people’s heads skewered with arrows, bullets literally blowing people in half, and people reduced to red chunky bits dripping down the shield of a mounted machine gun. Not necessarily in that order.

Stallone, of course, will tell you that the violence in Rambo — much of which is perpetrated by the film’s bad guys, vicious Burmese soldiers, and is therefore not intended as gory entertainment — is meant to shed light on the real-life genocide presided over by Burma’s military junta. But really, in terms of how the movie works, the Burmese army are just the baddest bad guys Stallone could find. They make good, guilt-free target practice. Card-carrying liberals have nodded grudging approval to Stallone and Rambo: The movie delivers. As a piece of crude, ejaculatory guerrilla pulp, the movie is at the head of its class (or lack thereof). It takes the psychopathology of vengeful carnage about as far as it can go. Just as Rocky Balboa was Stallone’s back-to-basics gift to Rocky fans, Rambo is a bloody valentine to devotees of the glumly apolitical Vietnam vet who has a talent for ushering dozens of his enemies into the next life.

Rambo is busy catching snakes in Thailand when he’s tapped to bring a group of American missionaries into Burma. At first he declines, but Julie Benz is among them, and since Rambo is secretly a Joss Whedon fanboy, he agrees. Almost as soon as his boat drops them off, the missionaries are captured by Burmese soldiers. Julie Benz is isolated and saved for sexual satisfaction by one soldier who particularly enjoyed her work on Angel. Rambo hears of this and leaps into action, accompanied by several mercenaries led by the lead singer of Right Said Fred. People die. Lots of people die. 3.04 people per minute, according to a chart making the internet rounds, which means Rambo almost achieves action-movie Pi. Or something.

We’ve discussed how Rambo is as a Rambo movie — in its way, it’s as genuine and heartfelt a throwback as Rocky Balboa was. How is it as a movie in general? As a director, Stallone does interesting things; his recent efforts are rather dour and fatalistic, but with a glimmer of hope, building to the climax the fans came to see, and ending on a note of renewal. Rambo certainly has more going on between the lines than, say, Live Free or Die Hard. Stallone takes these two mythological characters at opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum — the simple-minded, good-hearted Rocky and the embittered, cynical Rambo — and walks them through fables in which the hero regains his relevance by being true to himself.

In style, though, Rambo is pretty much a slasher flick. You want to see Rocky win, and you want to see Rambo kill, just like Michael Myers and Jason. Stallone, to his credit, gives Rambo an extra helping of grumpiness — he doesn’t want to kill again, he’s perfectly happy spearing fish in Thailand and staying out of everyone’s business. Circumstance forces his brutal hand — that, and Stallone’s desire to follow up one comeback with another. (Rambo barely lost first place to Meet the Spartans on opening weekend — which is still a step up from Rocky Balboa’s #3 debut.) In the end, I fall back on one of my filmgoing mantras, adapted loosely from Oscar Wilde: A movie like this can be well done or badly done. Rambo is well done, though it looks more like very rare steak.

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Cloverfield

January 18, 2008

The conceit of Cloverfield, like The Blair Witch Project before it, is that we’re watching video footage of unexplained, horrific events. While Blair Witch was all suggestion and no pay-off, though, Cloverfield delivers the goods. It’s a giant-monster movie told from street level, from the viewpoint of regular people fleeing from the beast. The cycle of revelation and retreat can be electrifying, and it’s fun to see this new angle on an old story. A goofball named Hud (T.J. Miller) captures the whole thing on a shaky borrowed digital camera, and when the monster shows itself in its full awful splendor near the end, Hud is mesmerized beyond terror; he stands there filming like a dummy, or like a human being in shock, as the thing gets ready for its closeup.

Bellowing like an enraged foghorn, the monster crawls up from the depths off of Coney Island and slithers through Manhattan with an eerie, dislocated-elbow motion. In the monster-attack scenes, the movie’s style — the apocalypse barely glimpsed — is chilling: We’re seeing essentially what we would see if we were there. A faux cinema verite film like this, however, can get locked into repetition; in a conventional narrative, scenes build and are shaped dramatically, and the standard big-monster movies from Gojira to the more recent The Host can forge suspense out of editing, composition and dialogue in a way that a movie like Cloverfield can’t. Yet Cloverfield, God save us all, attempts to have a plot — a conventional narrative plot wedded to a style that can’t support it.

The footage starts out at a going-away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who’s leaving soon for a nice job in Japan. (We send them a yuppie, they send us a Toho beastie?) The party stops when the monster arrives, and Rob spends much of the movie trying to get to Midtown to rescue Beth (Odette Yustman), his lost love. Hud tags along, since there’d be no movie if he didn’t, as well as Rob’s brother’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) and outsider Marlena (Lizzy Caplan, whose shell-shocked deadpan steals the film). This results in more than a few flat, stagey scenes that feel especially inconsequential because there’s a monster knocking large holes out of New York and who cares if Rob finds Beth?

There’ve been a few grumbles that Cloverfield deals in 9/11 imagery. Such critics seem to forget Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, with its dust-covered survivors and its street poles littered with “missing” posters. As I said in my review of that film, 9/11 changed the way we imagine large-scale disaster; we’ve seen what real city devastation looks like, and we can’t go back to tidier, more innocent visuals. The filmmakers, including producer J.J. Abrams (Lost) and director Matt Reeves, have dutifully talked up Cloverfield as a cathartic horror experience, much as Gojira was for post-Hiroshima Japan. The movie also tips its hat to its predecessors, including Alien and Starship Troopers. Essentially, it’s a noble experiment whose writer (Drew Goddard) couldn’t resist a little boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-saves-girl-from-gigantic-critter Hollywood gloss.

Still, I can’t deny feeling several massive surges of adrenaline whenever the monster stomped on tanks (oh yes, the military does get involved, much to its regret) or knocked over buildings or took out the Brooklyn Bridge. 9/11 notwithstanding, fictional catastrophe is still a thrill, which is somewhat reassuring. I do have misgivings about the way the story plays out, but no monster movie is without some boring-part, you-can-hit-the-bathroom-now cheesiness, and I guess the flat sections work as time-outs from the chaos. For the most part, Cloverfield earns its spot on your shelf next to all the Harryhausens and Tohos. Oh, and if you really need to know where the monster came from, do a Google search for “Tagruato.”