January 27, 2008

Rambo 4 (01/27/08)

Lettergrade: D

I was excited to see Stallone's new Rambo picture not because I was fan of the previous movies in the series, but because I was really impressed by 2006's Rocky Balboa, a sensitive coda to a franchise that had rocketed into the stratosphere of ridiculousness by the end of the 80s. Of course, the Rambo movies became pretty goddamn ostentatious by the end of their initial run too, but let's lay that aside for the moment in the spirit of me trying to come up with a solid introduction here.

At best, when I bought the ticket for Rambo 4 I was hoping for an exciting action picture with the aging, HGH enhanced star going on another adrenaline-fueled adventure through the jungle... You know, nothing that reinvented the wheel or anything, but that was crowd-pleasing in the tradition of Over The Top, Tango & Cash and some of the other Stallone pictures of eld. Again, the recent Rocky Balboa had given me some idea that such expectations for a new Rambo movie were not terribly out of line. I must warn you, however, that the film in actuality is nothing like that at all.

Rambo 4 is essentially Rambo done Saving Private Ryan style, which is to say that it is intense, graphic, and extremely disturbing. In this one, Rambo, now living a quiet life as a fisherman in Thailand, is coerced into Burma by some missionaries and gets mixed up in a bloody civil war. Early on, the film spends a lot of time detailing the intensely horrific things that the Burmese militias are doing to their own people: Making them run through mine fields for sport, executing scores of men, women, and children at random, and destroying villages that don't pay the extortion fees. These scenes encapsulate the comedic zenith of the picture, and things just get more brutal and horrible from there on out.

In addition to continuing the story of where Rambo is at in his very dark life, the film's primary objective is to inform the viewer of the horrors and injustice of this region of the world. It certainly does that, but I must wonder if a bloody action picture is the really the best forum to do so. Indeed, Rambo 4 fails to work as a message picture due to its popcorny sheen, while simultaneously failing as a satisfying action movie - Rambo or otherwise - as a result of the subject material being so goddamn depressing.

Believe it or not, though, I had never actually seen any of the Rambo movies until a few weeks before this new one came out. I was surprised to find that First Blood, the first film in which Rambo appears, is pretty modest on the death and explosions, and is quite respectable as a low-key action flick about a Viet Nam veteran who is shunned and despised by the people of the United States after returning from the war. He gets arrested and roughed up by some cops in Oregon, a key mistake that pushes Rambo over the edge and causes him to injure a bunch of people and blow a lot of shit up to gain his revenge.

The second film, Rambo: First Blood part II, is what people think about when they think about Rambo. In that one, an insanely 'roided out Stallone mows down dozens upon dozens of enemy fighters in ridiculous ways. The plot is put into motion when Colonel Trautman, played again by the late Richard Crenna, gets Rambo out of prison to go on a reconnaissance mission in Nam. His task is to locate POW camps long thought deserted, and photograph them so the military can get funding to send in rescue teams. Of course, when Rambo sees his captive brethren, he can't fight the urge to free the men himself and logically decides to take on the entire Viet Cong single-handed.

Now the third film, mysteriously titled Rambo III, is where the PSA component of Rambo started to get in the way of the movies being entertaining. Trautman tries to recruit Rambo, now living in a monastery in Tibet, for a mission to go to Afganistan and help the freedom fighters defeat the invading Russian forces. It's sorta the flip side of the events depicted in last year's Charlie Wilson's War. Rambo declines to participate, initially, but when word gets out that Trautman has been captured, the decision is made to go in, free his old commander, and fuck the Russian army's shit up, Rambo style. Before the big showdown, however, he gets a good lesson on how the Russians have mutilated and abused the Afghan people. Although the images are upsetting (and I'm sure they were even more so at the time), their main crime is that they slow the movie way down before transitioning back into a choppy, unsatisfying action finale.

I feel unclean making this complaint, but I think its a valid one. Its hard for a story-line that deals with a serious world-problem to fit into a series that also includes this scene from First Blood part II: Rambo stands not 20 yards from a dude frantically firing a machine gun at him. Seemingly impervious to bullets, Rambo calmly takes out an explosive-tip arrow, and fires it right at the guy, causing him to completely explode in the most ridiculous (and fake) way. Movies like Hot Shots! Part Deux and the Weird Al classic UHF didn't have to work very hard to make this moment funny: All they had to do was recreate it as faithfully as possible.

The most compelling section of Rambo 4 is a phenomenally staged sequence wherein Rambo and his team coordinate a hostage rescue from the main militia camp during a fierce rain storm. This has the predictable result of pissing off the entire Burmese army, who chases him through the jungle and into another well-staged action sequence. If Rambo 4 as a whole had decided to modernize in this way - by reducing the ridiculous overly-macho action of the second and third movies, and focusing instead on chases and tension, as First Blood did - I would have been all for it.

Apart from these two standout scenes, however, the picture largely relies on its own willingness to be shockingly graphic in its violence and horror. Although movies that do this while dealing with world issues are generally are not to my liking, I have no problem with them, in theory. Something feels wrong, however, about using the scenario as an opportunity for another Rambo picture.

One last thing... In the first three pictures, Rambo had a big ass knife that he invariably used to work his way out of some tight jams at select points during the movie. Perhaps its telling that this time he fashions a crude machete in his work shop before setting out... a tool he uses to hack up and dispense with his opponents in a style that rivals that of Jason Voorhees.

In First Blood he had a little knife, and it was mostly used to cut ropes and treat wounds, etc. That movie had a total body count of 4 or 5. Rambo 4 has a body count of something like 260, according to an east coast professor who went through the trouble of trying to keep count. I'll remember First Blood for its poignant message of how messed up it is that the Viet Nam vets were treated as they were upon returning from the war. The main thing I'll remember about Rambo 4, however, is the urgent feeling of wanting to get the fuck out of the theater as quickly as possible.

January 26, 2008

Atonement (01/26/08)

Lettergrade: C

I must admit that I was not filled with a burning desire to see Atonement, but we pulled the trigger on doing so due to the award-season attention and because it was recommended by several friends. Now that I've seen it, I would give the movie high marks overall, although with the disclaimer that certain aspects of the story and how it unfolds have not entirely sat well with me in the time since the end credits rolled. Nevertheless, it is one of those movies where in spite of whatever problems it may have, it is a fine example of solid writing, acting, and filmmaking craft, and should be admired on that level, if for no other reason.

Based on a popular novel by Ian McEwan, the ads suggest that the movie is standard British costume drama fare, but in truth it is quite different - and more surprising - than that. The key character is Briony: As a young girl she's played by Saoirse Ronan, who just got an Oscar nomination for her work. The precocious thirteen year old witnesses fragmental evidence of older sister Keira Knightley's blossoming love affair with James McAvoy, the son of one of the family servants. A la Three's Company, she greatly misunderstands and misinterprets what she sees, thinking that McAvoy is a sex-obsessed maniac who's been assaulting and hurting her sister uninvited. Briony uses that misperception to later justify testifying against McAvoy for a crime that she's not entirely sure he actually committed.

Four years later, when World War II is in full swing, Briony (now played by Romola Garai) begins to realize the ramifications of what she did. Several lives, including her own, have been dramatically altered from what happened: McAvoy had been sent to prision, but has now been released to the British military and is serving in France. Knightley, estranged from the rest of the family, is a "war sister" in London (kind of like a super-nurse, I gather), and the two correspond frequently, meeting whenever McAvoy is on leave.

Director Joe Wright was also responsible for the remake of Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice that was in theaters a few years back, and he stages everything here in fresh, exciting ways that somewhat transcend expectation. The key thing to note is the film's avant-garde sequencing: At a few key points, we see part of an event from one person's point-of-view which can be perceived a certain way. Then, however, the film jumps back and goes through the sequence again, but following different characters, giving what you saw before totally different context. I would have to see the movie a second time to completely figure out the exact logic behind the film's tricky temporality, but even to the slightly perplexed viewer, it is interesting to reveal the pieces of the story the way they did it here.

And now a spoilerish word about the character that Vanessa Redgrave plays toward the end of the picture. Frankly, what she has to say about the preceding scenes and the ongoings of the plot is the main thing that gives me reservations about the movie. I always feel it is risky for a film to tell you that a big chunk of what you just saw didn't happen or wasn't entirely accurate. Movies like The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense get away with it because they still work well as thrillers, regardless of whether or not you've been carefully mislead about a key plot point. A drama is different kind of deal in that the satisfaction largely comes from the characters, their interactions, and the choices they make as story moves along.

Redgrave's character reveals that a key exchange late in the film never actually took place, which - like the rest of the movie - raises complex questions about point-of-view and perception. In this case, however, finding out that this particular event did not really happen made me call into question the validity of a good number of other scenes that actually constitute a good portion of the movie.

I'm having trouble expressing why, exactly, this bothers me without being too direct about it, so I will turn, as I have many times in my life, to Ocean's 12. Toward the end of that movie, it is revealed that George Clooney and Brad Pitt did something way back in the first third of the film which ensured that no matter what happened, the outcome would be in their favor. Upon receiving that information, I sat there in the theater feeling remarkably cheated: If everything that happened past the 40 minute mark was totally inconsequential, why the fuck did the movie clock in at 2 hours and 10 minutes? The looks of concern on George and Brad's faces during the quasi-climax were basically there to keep the audience feeling like something risky was happening when in fact the game had been over long before that moment.

Atonement doesn't have this exact problem at all, but the Redgrave revelation suggests that a few key relationships in the movie have even less resolution than they seemed to have before the bombshell dropped. I guess what I'm talking about is the feeling of reaching the end of some great task, only to have the whole thing seem a little incomplete and puzzling in hindsight. That, perhaps, is how I feel deep down about Atonement, which is a shame because the movie has too much going for it in the early scenes to trail off like it does by the end.

January 1, 2008

National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets (01/01/08)

Lettergrade: C

After a steady diet of award season contenders, we were in the mood for a so-bad-its-funny piece of junk that would run no risk of garnering any Golden Globe and/or Oscar nominations. As such, it would be ingenuine of me to harshly assail National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets for being ridiculous, poorly written and utterly implausible, when in fact I bought the ticket hoping for those very qualities. I will say, however, that in spite of having our meager expectations pretty much met, we were a little disappointed all the same: The movie, while entertaining, wasn't quite bad enough to match the hilarity of several other recent shitbombs I could name, including Nicolas Cage's own Ghost Rider.

What's left is a moderately enjoyable, but pretty much by-the-numbers action-adventure story which kinda cross-breeds Raiders Of The Lost Ark with The Da Vinci Code, all dressed in the trappings of an 8th grade American History report. I can't say there's a lot of tension because there isn't much. I can't say that movie has surprises in store because it really doesn't. It does hold one's attention, at least, and if nothing else offers a few nuggets of vital trivia which may well come in useful if you happen to wind up on Jeopardy! some day.

I will now attempt to describe the plot. Academy Award® winner Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, the latest in a long line of treasure hunters whose first and middle names are those of significant U.S. historical figures. In the first movie, Ben and his father (Patrick Henry Gates, played by Academy Award® winner Jon Voight) made use of clues left by the American Founding Fathers on our money and within our national monuments to track down a metric fuck-ton of gold that the Masons brought to the U.S. during the Revolution. Along the way, they had to steal the Declaration of Independence, break into several historical landmarks, and make use of various science-fictiony "artifacts" supposedly designed by the actual Ben Franklin among others.

National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets is pretty much the same movie. The picture opens with a new character, Academy Award® nominee Ed Harris (who sports a villainous southern accent), unveiling a page from John Wilkes Booth's diary which suggests that Cage and Voight's ancestor (Thomas Jefferson Gates) was a co-conspirator of the Lincoln assassination. Cage can't stand to have the Gates family name sullied like that, and upon analyzing the journal page, discovers a code that leads to a map that will supposedly lead to a lost city of gold somewhere in the U.S. It's unclear how, but following the clues and unearthing this treasure will apparently prove that Thomas Jefferson Gates had nothing to do with Lincoln getting shot.

In addition to Harris, new cast members include Academy Award® winner Helen Mirren as Cage's mom, who conveniently is one of only 4 or 5 people in the world who can translate some ancient writing at a key point in the film. Justin Bartha returns from the first picture as Cage's wise-crackin' side-kick Riley Poole, who can magically circumvent the security system at Buckingham Palace using an iPod and Windows Vista. Bartha had only appeared in two other movies during the three year divide between National Treasures 1 and 2 and there's a good reason for that. Also, Diane Kruger (who I was convinced was actually Jennifer Jason Leigh in the first movie until I read the end credits) is back as the sort-of German chick who works in government in some capacity, and is now Cage's ex-girlfriend. Academy Award® nominee Harvey Keitel likewise reprises his role of the FBI agent charged with bringing Cage in.

Like in the first movie, Cage and his entourage repeatedly break into impossible situations with little to no preparation, and instantly solve puzzles that the greatest minds of our nation's history have been unable to crack. Having Cage play a character who we can therefore presume to be the smartest man on the planet is pushing it already, but what the hell. Despite the absence of credibility, I didn't find much about the movie terribly offensive, and again I will say that if you walk into a picture like this, you cannot be upset when the level of intellect turns out to be pretty much what you were expecting.

My few complaints revolve around the insufficient set-up for pretty much all the elements of the picture; characters, settings, and situations alike. The whole thing is shot and edited fairly traditionally, but paced so briskly that its hard to grasp the implications of the latest decoded clue or what the goal of the current action vignette might be at times. Director Jon Turteltaub and his screenwriters (credited as "The Wibberleys") may have had an explanation for how the lost city of gold does indeed connect with Lincoln's assassination, for example, but I, an astute movie goer, failed to pick up on what it might be.

Also, as in the first National Treasure, a secret society managed to get a shit-load of gold to some hidden location in the U.S. without anyone really finding out about it. More power to them, I guess, but my question is why wouldn't the Founding Fathers have used that money to help the fledgling nation pay for the war and get on its feet?

And while we're at it, there are a couple instances in the movie where Cage is approached on the street by a total stranger and lambasted for being the descendant of someone who helped plan Lincoln's death. Um... now that Abe has been dead for 140 years or so would the nation at large really give a frog's fat-ass about whom helped plan the assassination and for what reasons? I mean, I guess it's interesting on a historical level, but I suspect that if such news were really to surface, it would be a mere footnote along the lines of Thomas Jefferson having fathered slave children or Eleanor Roosevelt secretly having a dick, rather than something that would enrage the general public. And how the hell do random people on the street know who Cage is anyway?

Back in 2004, when the first National Treasure came out, my line on it was that it looked pretty much like The Da Vinci Code, but really stupid. This was, of course, two years before the Da Vinci Code movie starring Tom Hanks came out and proved to be a much worse movie than National Treasure was. As for how the new one stacks up... well, I still think it's somewhere between the two. I mean, it's not as artfully made as parts of The Da Vinci Code were, but at least its a little more up-front about the fact that it's shit.

One last thing: My wife found the advertisements for this picture somewhat unsettling, largely because Nicolas Cage has no sideburns in any of them and therefore appears to be wearing a toupee of the Moe Howard variety. If you watch closely throughout the film itself, you'll see that Cage does, in fact, have side-burns in some select scenes, but whether or not this is a clue to the on-goings of National Treasure 3, I cannot say.