Friday, May 30, 2008

Blogorium Review: Rambo

A fair warning: I like Rocky Balboa. I like First Blood, and as cartoony as it becomes, I still enjoy Rambo: First Blood Part II. I can't defend Rambo III, but the good news is that I don't have to. Stallone's Rambo isn't trying to be Part II or III. Just like Rocky Balboa is a direct sequel to Rocky, so too is Rambo to First Blood.

Which is not to say that it's a lot like First Blood. One of the things you need to know is that Stallone carries the mentality of John Rambo from the first film into 2008's Rambo. The other thing you might want to know is that Rambo is not akin to Rocky Balboa in any way: the way each film handles the journey of their title characters is totally different. Rocky Balboa is about hope, and Rambo is not.

The violence in Rambo isn't as cartoony as it gets in the sequels, but there's enough gore and grue to make people coming just for that happy. At the same time, this isn't so much "AWESOME!" violence as it is "Oh Jesus!" violence. Until about halfway into the movie, any scene of violence is there to disturb you. The first time Rambo kills anyone, it's over so quickly you don't see much of anything.

When things get unhinged towards the end, the gore takes it up to 11 in no time at all. Heads get blown off, people's arms and legs are ripped apart by explosions, people are burned and mutilated, and yes, some guy gets his throat ripped out. Slowly. Maybe it was just me, but even when Rambo kills the "big" bad guy, it wasn't a "hell yeah!" moment so much as a "geez!" scene. That must've been what Stallone was going for, because all of the "rah rah" kills are visceral and disgusting. They happen quickly, and when it's over you don't want to linger.

Sylvester Stallone also avoids easy comparisons to Rocky by making John Rambo not just emotionally different, but physically too. Rocky was an over the hill boxer, but he had enough definition to be clear that he was once a fighter. He still has the sense of being chiseled. I can't remember who said it, but Rambo doesn't look like the chiseled stud of Part II or III. Instead, this dude looks like he was cut from a tree with an axe. John Rambo looks like a hulking nightmare hiding out in the jungle, a mass of muscule waiting to spring to action.

I liked Rambo: it's not really on long enough to overstay its welcome (without credits, it's a lean 80 minutes), and it doesn't dwell on Rambo's "down on life" outlook in any way that gets annoying. It's an effective, if exceptionally bleak action movie for most of the runtime, with a strange ending that wants to bookend with the beginning of First Blood. I don't know how I feel about that just yet, but I can safely say that Rambo is as good as Rocky Balboa, if for different reasons.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Blogorium Review: Youth Without Youth

I was sort of surprised to hear that Coppola was making another movie after all this time. He hasn't actually directed anything since The Rainmaker, but most of us really remember Bram Stoker's Dracula, a movie that sharply divides his fans (for the record, I think it plays fast and loose with the novel, but I dig it), so to come back fifteen years later was a giant question mark for a lot of people. Would this be the triumphant return of the director of Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, and The Conversation? Or were we going to see another Jack*, or worse, The Godfather Part III**.

So how is Youth Without Youth? I liked it, although I'm having a hard time boiling it down into ways of explaining why. Part of it has to do with the story, which is based on a novel by Mircea Eliade. I'm not an expert on Eliade, but I do know a bit about his theories on religion and the "sacred and the profane". That just barely prepares you for Youth Without Youth.

There are a whole lot of narrative and philosophical threads bouncing around in the film, which is on the surface about a seventy year old man being struck by lightning, which restores his youth. It also gives him certain supernatural powers, and fractures his identity, creating a "double". What's interesting is unlike most films that deal with doubles or people who have super powers, Youth Without Youth isn't all that interested in dwelling on them. The double, so often a device for nefarious purposes, is here more to act as a greek chorus for Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) as he makes sense of his mutation.

Youth Without Youth begins as a sort of World War Two thriller; when the Nazis discover Matei, the first third of the film is sort of a tense chase film. Then it shifts abruptly from the 1940s to 1955, when Matei meets a kindred spirit in a woman who lives through a similar lightning strike. Instead of exhibiting powers, she goes into hypnotic states, channeling increasingly archaic people and languages. She also seems to be a manifestation of the woman Matei lost as a young man, although the film is preoccupied enough that you might forget that.

I'm going to stop trying to recap the movie, because this already sounds contrived, and Youth Without Youth isn't nearly as cut and dried as this. Coppola plays with our perception of what is dream, what is fact, and where we are chronologically in the movie. He's also still got an amazing eye for composition and for creating images that are breathtaking. I haven't seen a movie that used such deep blues since Soderbergh's The Underneath, and this is a much better movie than Underneath.

Ultimately, I think this is a promising first step for Coppola, and I sense Youth Without Youth is more rewarding with multiple viewings. It's not that I didn't enjoy it the first time, but being able to watch it again and not focus so hard on soaking everything in should be advantageous. Watch it, but understand that parts of it require paying more attention than the average viewer is interested in doing.

* If you don't remember Jack (and I don't blame you), that'd be the movie about Robin Williams playing a child who ages rapidly and is entering the fifth grade. For a dramedy, it's neither funny nor touching.

** For the record, while I can't honestly argue with any criticism directed at Godfather III, I do kind of admire Coppola's attempt to push the saga of the Corleone family into Shakespearean territory.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Blogorium Review: Diary of the Dead

Is this really the fifth "Dead" movie? With so many remakes and imitators out there, it's hard to believe that, and honestly I thought it was the fourth. For some reason I kept forgetting Land of the Dead, even though I liked the direction Romero was heading in that film. Still, I can't blame him for walking away from studio interference and making his newest "dead" film on the cheap. Night, Dawn, and Day were all financed independently, and they do have a gritty quality that no budget increase can replicate. So instead of continuing the saga of the world in post-infestation, Romero goes back to the beginning for Diary of the Dead. But does it work? Has the man who really put social commentary by way of flesh eating undead lost it, or is Diary of the Dead an on the money critique of the 24 Hour News Media Generation?

Well, there's two things going on here in Diary of the Dead: 1) Romero is playing around with the "found footage" world of Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, and 2) he's tapping into the YouTube generation in order to make his commentary relevant. Only one of these is really successful.

Look, I've heard both sides of the argument about Diary of the Dead. I understand that the movies since Night have been not so subtle comments on society, but George never made it so transparent as he does in Diary. Having a narrator holding our hand when we can figure it out for ourselves is just embarrassing. The character of Debra makes such a radical shift halfway through the film that it makes her tactless narration even cheaper on the second go-through. I get what Romero is trying to say, but he's never done it this badly.

It doesn't help that the main characters are at best paper thin. The film students (and their professor) that comprise the main cast are so poorly sketched out that I had a really hard time caring when *spoiler* they started dying. We just don't get any time with them that doesn't feel perfunctory or cliched. Worse still, Diary of the Dead DOES introduce some really interesting characters (the Amish farmer, the guys in the warehouse) that seem to have logical and organic reactions to the "dead" outbreak. Instead of spending more time with them, however, they're brushed aside so we can get more hollow explanations of why anyone would just stand there and film while their friend is bleeding to death. If that wasn't enough, the marginally interesting students get shoehorned with truly awful dialogue.

Take, for example, this awkward dialogue from two thirds of the way in:

"It used to be us versus us."
"But now it's us versus them."
Narration: "Jason was right, except that them was now us."

Come on. Romero goes all the way around himself to say the same stupid thing that Barbra says in the Night of the Living Dead remake. For one thing, you could've reversed what he said and did without the omniscient narration, but that's just one example of how poorly the subtext is handled.

On the other hand, Diary of the Dead is proof that Romero can use the by now overused "handheld camera" format to generate suspense. There's some genuine tension in Diary, particularly in the barn sequence, the warehouse, and the mansion at the end (not so much the hospital, which is just awkward). When he can keep the characters from overexplaining the totally unnecessary things they do and the really terrible cg gore doesn't get in the way, Diary of the Dead can at least remind you why George Romero is the master of the zombie film.

I can't give this movie a pass, however; it's just too boneheaded in making wafer thin characters do things no one would ever do, and the subtext is about as subtle as watching Fox News. I really don't understand why Diary of the Dead insists on undermining the "internet free press" position it takes by equating that very position with "noise", but a lot of things just don't make sense about this movie as a whole.