REVIEW: Rambo (2008)

NOTE: The first half of this kinda turned into a longer “catch-up piece” for the “Rambo” franchise than I expected to. For those wishing to skip to the actual review, it begins directly following the bold-face “Mild Spoiler” warning.

If future generations (hell, CURRENT generations) ever want to get an immediately-clear idea of just HOW all-over-the-map the tone, ideology and zeitgeist of 1980s American cinema was, watching the original three “Rambo” movies will probably do it. The six year, three-film evolution of John J. Rambo – a decorated Vietnam vet suffering profoundly from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and seemingly unable to adjust to a non-warrior life – from a tragic figure of ‘Nam-haunted America to one-man-army superhero to cartoonish “patriotic” Commie-buster is one of the most surreal results of the “sequelization” process; right up there with Godzilla’s gradual metamorphosis from walking spectre of nuclear evil to baddie-fightin’ single-dad.

“First Blood,” the debut of the character (based on a book by David Morell,) largely “snuck up” on audiences of the time. The “psycho Nam-vet” had become a movie stock-character almost as soon as the first post-Nam movies started to come out; and at first-glance “Blood” didn’t seem all that different from any other “turned into killers by the army and unable to turn back” stalking highways and turning small-towns into bloodbaths all over the exploitation/drive-in circuit of the day. The exception, folks would discover, was in perspective: The film casts it’s sympathy overwhelmingly behind it’s wounded-warrior, framing his violent outburst as an instinct/PTSD-based reflex-reaction to his being unjustly harrassed by a vindictive small town Sheriff’s department.

This, as it turns out, made it the ideal movie for the strange transition underway in America’s post-Nam view of itself – still hurt and bitter over the war itself, but now also beginning to feel the pangs of regret over how said bitterness got projected onto the returning veterans. At once stridently anti-war (anti-military, really, when you get right down to it) yet earnestly pro-warrior, it was simply exactly the right movie at exactly the right time, and megastar Sylvester Stallone’s (then already near the pinnacle of his “Rocky”-era stardom) John Rambo was the right hero… A kind of modernized-anachronism, much like Rocky Balboa, given an extra boost with the return of the old-school “Army Hero” archetype to American pop-culture prominence – coming into being the same year, in fact: the revamped “G.I. Joe.”

The down-right surprising willingness of the public to embrace Rambo as an anti-hero quickly led to his celebration as a straightforward hero, period. And while that said some pretty positive things about America’s reconcilliation with her Vietnam veterans it wound up being less than the best thing that ever happened to the franchise: Strong and resourceful but still all-too-human to start with, Rambo found himself refitted into a pumped-up, nigh-invincible action figure capable of mowing down legions of foes with relative ease in “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” A well-staged actioner and a huge hit at the time, the film today mostly plays out like a high-camp parody of it’s own legion of imitators – imagine if “The Brave One” had been a sequel to “Nell” and you’ll have an idea of how jarring it is for THIS movie to be the direct sequel to “First Blood.”

The commitment to giving Nam vets their belated appologies and salute remains sincere, despite a fairly cheesey screenplay, but in the end it’s more notable for the preposterous knots the story ties itself into in order to both concievably relate to the first film’s “the-system-is-broken” nihilism and hit the “go-team” patriotic superheroism demanded of Reagan-era military flicks: Enlisted by his former army bosses to smuggle remaining American POWs out of Vietnam, Rambo blasts his way through NVA creeps and meddling Soviet interlopers… but his real wrath is saved for the American military beaurocrats who continue to abuse and discard his fellow soldiers. It makes for a unique time-capsule, if not necessarily a sturdy film. And even that “uniqueness” would be gone when the time came for the forgettable Afghanistan romp “Rambo III,” which finally reduces Rambo to just another musclebound cipher kicking butt for the stars n’ stripes. The franchise, along with “Rocky,” waned and so did Mr. Stallone’s status as a go-to action hero.

I believe that brings us up to date.


“Rambo,” (which really should have been called “Rambo IV,” “Rambo Returns” or maybe even “Last Blood,”) isn’t so much about completing or even altering the arc of a bygone-era’s hero like “Rocky Balboa” was – John J. Rambo seems to enter and exit the film in about the same place mentally as he was the last three times and pretty comfortable with it to boot – as it is about reviving a particular form of action movie: In this case the muscle-n-hardware unappologetic blast-fests of the 80s that the “Rambo” franchise created and was ultimately consumed by. You’ll find no stealthy Jason Bournes, no air-walking “Transporters” or mathematically-precise gun-kata here – this is about putting the biggest guns in the hands of the man bad enough to wield them.

John Rambo, now in his early 60s and somehow looking like MORE of an intimidating physical presence than before, has made something of a life for himself as a snake-trapper and riverboat captain in Thailand, just down river from the raging civil war in neighboring Burma (reportedly chosen by writer/director/star Stallone after both the U.N. and Soldier of Fortune magazine both told him that this was the part of the world most crying-out for attention of the Rambo variety) where government soldiers are brutally slaughtering the Karen Rebels. A group of Christian missionaries from Colorado want to hire him to take them into the aforementioned war zone so that they might hand out medicine, Bibles and moral support to the Karen, something he’s not interested in doing (he’s sure they’ll get themselves killed) until the group’s lone female (Julie Benz) begs him.

While on the river, the ideological gulf between the battle-hardened Rambo and the earnest but hopelessly naive and obnoxiously sanctimonious Missionaries comes into focus and sets up the theme for this go-round: A band of river pirates turn up with intent and ability for rape and murder, Rambo does what he does to rescue his passengers… who return this kindness by berating him for his sinful ways. “Taking a life is NEVER justified!!!” lectures the head Missionary, who may as well be named Ned Flanders and who earlier had similarly scoffed at the notion that they bring some weapons with them. Silly Rambo! Guns are for sinners! Bibles, prayers and good intentions are all the protection we need… and all the “help” we’re looking to really offer the oppressed rebels. You can guess how that works out for them.

Now THIS, folks, is surprisingly interesting stuff. The overall arc, that of “peace at any cost” folks learning that sometimes violence IS the answer, isn’t anything earthshaking for the genre – but the specifics at play here are. Normally, you see this routine in overly political terms, with pacifist “liberals” getting schooled in the “realities” of war by a gung-ho “conservative” army hero. That the opposing philosophies here – the shoot first modern cowboy and the devoutly religious – are BOTH generally claimed under the umbrella of the American “right-wing” effectively innoculates it against political overthinking. “Rambo” isn’t a clash of left and right but of human practicality versus spiritual sanctimony… and more interesting still, it doesn’t cheap-out: It has a WINNER.

The film sets up a badder-than-bad cadre of villians, lays out the John Rambo Method of dealing with them – human ingenuity, a willingness to FIGHT for what you know is right – and the Missionary Method – surrender your will/life/fate to a deity, ask him for help, hope he’s on your side – and finds the Missionary Method wanting. Most of the time when this area gets covered, it’s set up to split evenly on both sides… but “Rambo” has a refreshingly direct opinion on the matter… even more refreshing since it’s the one you so rarely see get a thumbs-up in the popular culture. After suffering through watching the this-close-to-magnificient “I Am Legend” descend into bullshit “spiritual” twaddle a little while back, I’m not sure I can accurately convey how glad I am to see a major-market action blockbuster hinged on a theme of human brains, brawn, invention and pro-action triumphing where sanctimony fails utterly. It’s not that I can’t appreciate a bit of the ol’ “Angels came and saved everyone, th’ end!” when it’s done right, I’m just thrilled to see some balance.

But even when they ARE satisfying, we don’t go to “Rambo” movies for theme. You want to know how the action is. In a word? Brutal. Stallone has been paying attention to where the genre has gone, and where it’s been, and he’s delivered the kind of horror-movie-level violence you’re usually only going to see when Mel Gibson gets his hands on a camera and some Jesus Costumes. He knows the formula well enough to refine it and make it work like a machine built for the singular purpose of eliciting visceral reactions of his audience: First you show a hero. Then you show bad guys doing unspeakably horrible stuff to both establish your bad-assery credentials. You’re allowed to go nuts with it (and boy does he) because the audience knows they can experience the evil vicariously without any guilt in the knowledge that the pre-established hero is going to punish this evil by the end. Then you let the punishment begin, and the audience full-cheers at the vengeance inflicted upon the purveyors of the violence they were gasp-cheering earlier. Set the timer, walk away, 90 minutes later you’ve got a gorehound crowd-pleaser.

At first it almost seems like he can’t possibly pull it off, the initial violence is so extreme. The Burmese villians race captives through minefields, stomp and gun-down children, torch people alive, rape and beat women (and children), toss toddlers into flaming buildings, feed prisoners to pigs and spray gunfire around like an infernal fertilizer. I can’t remember the last time I saw this level of onscreen carnage in an American theatrical film… it easily out-gores “Apocalypto” and even horror splatterfests like “Saw” and “Hostel.” It could well be the bloodiest movie of the year – and this is only the bad-guy-badness-establishing-violence… Rambo hasn’t even started on them yet! Though rest assured, once he does (after the Missionaries’ benefactor asks him to take a team of Mercenaries to the spot they were last seen) the result honors the genre-mandated agreement between you and the movie that all the “bad” violence you have to see in the first half will be doubly-revenged by “good” violence in the second. And yes, Rambo has brought along his bow and arrow.

The action is epic, the themes are genuinely interesting, but the film finally doesn’t quite land in the realm of “great” (though it IS the best entry in the series after “First Blood.”) It doesn’t really do much to advance or broaden Rambo as a character – content to simply let him be Rambo once again stuck doing the dirty work he hates being so good at – the way “Rocky Balboa” put the final psychological period on it’s titular lead. And while the lean n’ mean editing and pacing is appreciated in terms of keeping the “ride” exciting, it must be said that the film could likely have had more ressonance beyond just raw thrills if it had taken a bit more down time to flesh out it’s characters and central themes (it doesn’t really have a “second act” between the setup and the payoffs.)

What we get is an old-fashioned blood and guts action flick, well made and utterly comfortable with itself, with the bonus of a more-interesting-than-really-necessary exploration of faith vs. fist philosophy. For a 20 years later relaunch of a dubiously-departed action franchise, that ain’t bad at all.


REVIEW: There Will Be Blood

When we first meet Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) he’s dragging himself in and out of a pitiful pit of a would-be 19th Century silver mine, going through what ought to be the work of a team of men with his own two hands. It’s a task that ultimately breaks him – literally – when a nasty fall lands him alone at the bottom with a broken leg. It’s the first time (the actual opening is about 25 minutes long, free of discernable dialogue) that Plainview seems to be vulnerable… or even human, and it will be the last: Halfway to buried alive, he finds the evidence of silver, claws his way out of the Earth and drags himself across the desert to stake his claim. Soon he’s traded silver for the new fortunes of oil, reborn as a sly businessman trekking across the American West gobbling up oil-rich land from unsuspecting farmers one step ahead of Standard Oil; winning them over by framing his monomaniacal paranoia as a kind of get-my-own-hands-dirty pioneer gumption. For added effect, he keeps his almost-entirely silent son H.W. at his side as the “partner” in his “family business.”

The spark of inspiration here comes from “Oil!”, a 1920s Upton Sinclair evils-of-capitalism tract that never quite did for the oil-biz what his own “The Jungle” did for the meat-packing biz. Writer/Director/Producer Paul Thomas Anderson tosses the names, most of the side-stories, strips out the fairly dated politics and messageering and zeroes in on his (re-named) lead for what amounts to an epic character-study. Given it’s origins, the film constantly threatens to tumble over into message-movie territory – and it’s not hard to imagine a kind of two-way critique of quintessentially American hangups over capitalism and religion breaking out once we meet Plainview’s nemesis in manipulative false-prophet “holy man” Eli Sunday (Paul Dano.) But that moment never really comes as the film is content to observe it’s central monster absent much commentary on anything around him.

At first it seems like even the NAME “Plainview” must have some kind of ironic meaning, but soon enough it starts to creep in that it’s actually quite descriptive: Daniel Plainview ISN’T complicated – he’s EXACTLY what he appears to be… to the audience, anyway. That, in a nutshell, is going to be a problem for a lot of audiences. We tend to be pre-conditioned by DECADES of modern and post-modern storytelling to expect that strange, even evil beings will eventually be “explained” by some flaw or past wrong – that the ‘point’ of watching a character behave reprehensibly is to eventually be told what his “Rosebud” was.

This movie isn’t like that. There is no Rosebud, and there doesn’t seem to be anything important that’s secret or hidden (from the audience) about Plainview: He announces himself to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention as a creature for whom drive and conquest are goals in and of themselves right away, and while we might be surprised at some of the levels his mania reaches none of it seems “quirky” or outside the realm of possibility.

All of which leads to a pretty basic question: Is it REALLY worth spending 2-1/2 hours of movie watching a fascinating but largely unlikable nutcase cut a swath of bodies, blood and oil from one end of his life-story to the next? As it turns out… yes. The key here is that Anderson uses the period setting to establish an important distance between the modern audience and his 19th Century characters: Plainview’s carefully-measured “reassuring” tone and demeanor whenever he’s conducting “business” are, to us, the unmistakable voice and poise of a con-artist… but to the “simple” folk he wishes to swindle, it’s bought entirely at face value. Scenes of Eli Sunday’s similarly blatant church “performances” being swallowed hook, line and sinker help drive this point home: These are people of a different time and place, they don’t or can’t see what we see, they have no clue what either of these men actually are.

So, we’re not ONLY watching Daniel Plainview do exactly what we know he’s going to do, we’re watching everyone else figure it out only too late or not at all – something like seeing “Twister” from the weather’s point of view. Of all the characters, only Eli seems to approach him with a basic understanding of what he’s really up against, the implication being that they’re both con-artists working different versions of the same game… Plainview still holds a crucial edge here, though, as he seems to fully comprehend their similarlity while Eli may not.

Easily one of the year’s best, and a must-see.


Heath Ledger 1979-2008

I know, by now everyone knows but I was at work all day.

Look… there’s actually A LOT to be speculated about and hashed-over in terms of what this means about certain upcoming movies and other insider stuff, but right now I just don’t have it in me and I’ll be damned if it goes up before the obligatory Oscar nominations stuff… which, given this, I’m ALSO in no real mood to do right now. Yeah, the buildup-to and ultimate reception-of a certain huge blockbuster movie are now going to be drastically altered, and some poor guys in a certain studio’s marketing department are right now both sweating bullets and feeling horribly awkward and guilty about it. You know it, I know it. But honestly I just don’t feel right about even considering any of it. The whole thing just plain SUCKS.

He wasn’t even 30 years old. He’d just started to show the potential a major talent taking shape. More importantly, he had a 2 year-old daughter. What a depressing fucking waste.

REVIEW: Cloverfield

Here’s the first movie in awhile to actually make digital-age “ballyhoo” work. So many films have attempted to use a slow buildup of leaks, rumors, red-herrings and the organic nature of internet Film Geek hype as the “first act” of a moviegoing-as-sideshow experience and come up short on the final “capper” of the film itself, but not so “Cloverfield.” Here we are, a mere 18 days in and 2008 already has it’s bold, stark “Movie Geeks vs. Everyone Else” dividing-line film – a promising start indeed.

“Cloverfield,” as you probably already know, stages a classic-formula Giant Monster movie in the mold of “Godzilla” and “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” from the P.O.V. of a group of average New Yorkers (via their possession of what has to be the world’s most durable camcorder) trying to get themselves and a potentially-trapped friend out of Manhattan while the Army fights what appears to be a losing battle against a gargantuan beast tearing up the cityscape. The film is presented in the form of said camcorder’s recordings, apparently unedited, pressaged only by the unsettling indication that this account of “Incident Codename: Cloverfield” was recovered from “Area formerly known as Central Park.”

I should preface this by pointing out that I despise shaky-cam cinematography and find the “found-footage” conceit to be completely played out… and I STILL loved this movie. Although it IS kind of interesting that the film hangs it’s signature gimmick on the notion that it’s sole point-of-view is a camcorder being operated by a guy set up as the dumbest of our none-too-sharp main cast… but that he’s STILL got a better sense of when to hold the fucking frame steady than the “Bourne Ultimatum’s” just-so-slightly-overrated Paul Greengrass does.

The first thing to understand about this movie, maybe the most important thing, is that what you’re looking at is LITERALLY a cinematic sideshow attraction – the movie equivalent of a nondescript blob of vaugely-eerie “something” floating in a jar of formaldehyde purporting to be the preserved corpse of a Chupacabra. You KNOW it’s a put-on, the point is to (hopefully) enjoy the skill with which the put-on is executed: How well the barker has pitched the show, how ‘real’ the patently-unreal thingee in the jar is, etc. It has to be done JUST RIGHT – too fake and it’s no fun, too “flashy” (i.e. the blob looks more like an art-designed Geigeresque masterpiece than a ‘could be anything’ chunk) and the illusion of plausibility is broken.

So, basically, to complain (as MANY will do, garaunteed) that “Cloverfield” has a choppy narrative, little to no structure, largely-unlikable characters and an almost total lack of traditionally-cinematic “arcs” for said characters is to damn the film for doing exactly what it sets out to do: Look as much as possible like an authentic video tape recovered from a camera found in the aftermath of a movie-traditional Giant Monster Attack on a major city. YES, the ‘story’ plays out without structure because reality doesn’t have act-breaks. YES, the cast of “average folks” are annoying, uninteresting and unremarkable because “average folks” ARE more often than not annoying, uninteresting and unremarkable – if they weren’t, they wouldn’t BE “average.” Getting mad at this movie for these things is like getting mad at Tom Brady for completing a pass.

The second thing to understand is, despite the fact that this is visceral “ride” movie that can be enjoyed (theoretically) by anyone without much preparation, at the end of the day it’s still a Monster Movie and thus a Geek Movie almost by-default – meaning that it’s “principal” audience of interest are the devoted genre fans who’re sufficiently well-versed in their Toho, Harryhausen and so-forth that they can plot the “classical” structure from memory and thus oughtn’t be AS bothered by the lack of “explaining what It is and where It came from” scenes since you’ve seen your share enough to fully imagine them taking place beyond the frame.

You’ll notice that I didn’t open this with a “Spoiler Warning,” because there’s really nothing to “spoil.” As I said above, the film is “getting away” with it’s street-level view of a forumla genre film by having what “main” action we do see adhere to said formula as closely as possible. As such, those expecting some kind of grand surprise as to what “It” eventually “is” are setting themselves up for dissapointment, and if there IS some unique element to “It’s” backstory it’s not one we get to hear in the movie-proper. It’s not Godzilla. It’s not Cthulhu. It’s not Voltron. It’s not George, Ralph or Lizzie. It’s not the Smoke Monster from “Lost,” and no I didn’t see any Dharma logos anywhere.

Something must be said, I think, about the film’s seemingly deliberate evocations of 9/11 in the way it stages it’s citywide destruction – and not JUST a big ol’ told ya so (see: from me. While it’s true that every movie that obliterates a major city is going to remind us of That Day for a long time, “Cloverfield’s” upfrontness is unmistakable and undeniably effective: During the first attack sequence, a crumbling skyscraper sends a dust-cloud down the street and sends the heroes ducking into a deli to dodge it, watching the cloud blast by them through the windows. Afterwards, we even get dust-covered streets, scraps of paper “snowing” gently to Earth and ash-encrusted survivors wandering in shock. And that’s some of the more SUBTLE stuff – there’s at least one major visual reference that I’m genuinely impressed they pulled off without seeming in bad taste. This is hardly unprecedented; the original “Godzilla” repackaged post-Hiroshima angst into the form of a giant dinosaur, so it’s appropriate that America now also have a creature-feature reflecting the shared national-nightmare of OUR day of devastation.

“Cloverfield” is, in the end, more of an attraction than a narrative-film. All said and done, it’s a ride movie… but it’s a unique and gloriously-executed one, and easily one of the best “found footage” stagings ever concieved – EASILY superior to “Blair Witch,” “Cannibal Holocaust,” “Last Broadcast” and most of the other so-called vanguards of the genre. Yes, part of me hopes that it’s success (it’s going to be BIG, count on it) will lead to some more traditional “Kaiju” city-stompers flooding the blockbuster scene (what the HELL ELSE is all this modern CGI technology here FOR!!??) for now I’m enjoying the hell out of this one. HIGHLY reccomended.


REVIEW: In The Name of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale

I’m almost envious of people who go into Uwe Boll movies “cold,” not knowing what they’re in for or what to expect. For the unitiated, Boll is a singularly awful German filmmaker who works primarily adapting B-list video game franchises into ghastly genre flicks. His films feature – right down the line – hillariously bad screenplays, baffled-looking miscast “stars” apparently selected at random (let’s put it this way: If he was making movies in the 70s, Captain & Tenille and Ceasar Romero would feature prominently) and tend to look like the unfinished Pod-Person clones of other well-known movies: He knows what certain types of certain scenes are supposed to look like, the gist of dialogue thats expected to occur… but no real idea how to execute them, integrate them into a story or string them into a working narrative. According to some accounts, his whole career until recently was the result of a real-world “Producers”-style con; exploiting a now-defunct German tax loophole that allowed his films to profit their investors more as flops than they would’ve as hits.

WHYEVER he’s able to keep working, given his choice of subject matter and the inescapable drive of MST3K-primed Movie Geeks to attend and quietly heckle bad films among themselves, Boll has evolved (maybe not entirely unwittingly) into a kind of Interweb-era Ed Wood sans the enthusiasm or decent-guy sympathy (his yet-unreleased film “Postal” is a comedy about 9/11, and features a slapstick for-laughs recreation of the attacks): The release of a new Boll film turns into a movie geek pilgrimage of reverse-reverance. Which I hope explains how it is I came to watch this movie, in the company of good friends as a kind of shared experience of intellectual masochism.

The starting-point this time is a largely-formula Fantasy RPG called “Dungeon Siege,” the title here relegated to it’s own subheading because Boll has re-imagined it as a road-company “Lord of The Rings” thus leaving a paucity of dungeons to be sieged. A generic fantasy kingdom (okay, the Canadian Rockies with some grass huts and CGI castles) is engulfed in a war between an aging King (Burt Reynolds) and an evil Wizard (Ray Liotta) who has marshalled an army of Orc-like “Krugs” to commit acts of disconnected wickedness across the land. The Krugs sack the village and ravage the family of a turnip farmer (Jason Statham) who grabs his trusty machete and boomerang (don’t ask) and sets out to – in his words – “gouge evil from it’s shell.” Matthew Lillard is a cut-rate Jack Sparrow knockoff, John Rhys Davies (who seems to come included in the do-it-yourself-fantasy-movie kit now) is on hand for grave exposition, Leelee Sobieski is his daughter mainly here to (eventually) look rather lovely in a suit of Renaissance Faire armor, and Kristana Lokken (late of “The L-Word” and Boll’s “Bloodrayne”) swings around on vines as the leader of characters best-described as a troupe of acrobatic lesbian Ewoks.

Statham’s farmer, by the way, is actually named Farmer, which momentarily holds the promise that Boll has finally leapt headlong into meta-parody of the RPG genre and that EVERYONE will be named for their character-class… but unfortunately everyone ELSE has names instead of “Warrior,” “Night Elf,” “Red Mage,” etc. Chalk it up to missed-opportunity. Statham is actually the only member of the cast to emerge unscathed, easily maintaining both his dignity and his title as THE top B-action star of his generation. While everyone else is forced to plow through unmanageable lines (“Wisdom will be our hammer…” Reynolds is forced to sagely intone, “and prudence will be our nail!”) and endless cut-rate recreations of “The Two Towers” Helm’s Deep battle sequence, he’s mainly tasked with executing stunt-fights and glowering icily at enemies… things he can probably do by reflex at this point. Matthew Lillard has it the worst in an eye-rolling riff on “Braveheart’s” Edward II. Poor, poor Ray Liotta is made to rant and rave his way through his bad guy turn with a fretful haircut and a sequined cloak. Sad.

This will end up being one of the worst movies of the year, that much is granted. But for what it’s worth Boll manages ONE interesting moment – a pair of Wizards pace around arguing with one another while their swords fight levitating in mid-air between them – and the rest of the film is easily one of the funniest unintended comedies you’re going to see for awhile… provided that “unintentional comedy” is something you can enjoy.



Everything you’ve heard is true. After a long wait, 2007 finally has it’s mandatory “indie sensation:” i.e. a nominally indie-produced ‘quirky’ comedy. A cynical man would point out that, top to bottom, the very prospect of BEING a year’s “indie sensation” is what got this made in the first place – how could you NOT see said prospect just looking at it’s bona-fides: A chuckle-funny coming-of-age bit set smack-dab in “wacky” Flyover Country, riddled with jokey observational humor about suburban eclecticism penned by a former exotic dancer turned screenwriter? Nah, NOTHING about that would start the “Next Napolean Dynamite” glands a-waterin’. Total surprise to all involved, surely.

Yes, a cynical man would point that out… but he’d still like the movie.

Make no mistake: What we’ve got here is “Napolean Dynamite” crossed with “Knocked Up.” The titular Juno McGuff (Ellen Paige from “Hard Candy,” she’s a star, told ya so) is too-clever-by-half 16 year-old suburban she-geek who’s life revolves around two hobbies: Making dry/faux-jaded observations about how quirky the lawn-gnomes-and-Ron-Popeil world around her is and being a (largely unaware) passive-aggressive cocktease toward her boy-who’s-also-a-friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Sera from “Superbad,” cementing his status as the lord and master of the awkward teenaged love scene.) That second one sets things in motion when, mostly (she says) out of lack of anything else to do, she and Paulie get about the business of experimenting and she winds up “in the family way.”

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: YES, it’s worth acknowledging that the fact that “Juno’s” world and characters are middle-class and predominantly-white is the main reason why the movie is able to convincingly pull of the psuedo-edgy concept of a high school pregnancy as fodder for a cutsie-poo laffer; and that there’s plenty of people for whom a 16 year-old with a baby-bump is a hard fact of everyday life rather than something else for a smart-alecky tomboy to wax the pop-philosophic about (“They call me the Cautionary Whale!” wakka-wakka-wakka!) Fine. Acknowledged. Now take the elephant out back and shoot it, ’cause that’s neither here nor there: In the context of the movie this is a learning experience and a through-way to observe relationship dynamics. That’s it. Juno has a capable support-structure, an understanding family and this isn’t going to ruin her life. Sometimes, that’s how it works out.

What makes this all work is that the film slowly reveals itself to be doing something you’re not necessarily expecting from an “everyone-else-is-such-a-dope” teen girl starrer penned by a writer who named herself Diablo Cody (who’s holy-shit cute, by the way): Giving Juno’s too-hip-for-the-room smugness a gentle kick in the ass. She’s positive that she can just have the baby, give it up for adoption to a well-off couple and get right back to life unfazed. The young couple in question meet her exacting standards easily – well, at least the husband (Jason Bateman) does: He’s a songwriter still dreaming of the rocker’s life with a cool taste in music who strikes her as a fellow hipster. The wife (Jennifer Garner, who’s acting ability I MIGHT now owe an appology to) is a bit of a plastic control-freak who rubs her the wrong way.

See, in a lesser movie, these characters would be the ones with something to learn from wise-beyond-her-years Juno – but this isn’t a lesser movie, and it’s Juno who’s got some things to learn. Namely that she might NOT be a master-observer able to instantly size-up everyone and everything completely; and that there might be more to someone’s worth than the approximate level of their hipness. Oh, and the REALLY difficult one: That she might need to drop the smug act altogether in order to actually appreciate certain people in her life – mainly Paulie, who probably-sorta-kinda-maybe loves her.

This is a good, sweet little movie that’s using a little bit of indie-quirk to wash down a whole lot of genuine heart. You already know that everyone likes it, so do I, so will you.


REVIEW: One Missed Call (2008)

(Hey, kids, wanna know a great shorthand for perusing movie reviews online? If the movie in question is a remake of a popular or noteworthy earlier film, and in the FIRST SENTENCE of the review-proper you observe the words “the original” OR the name of the earlier film’s director, the new one PROBABLY sucks.)

Setting out to remake a movie from Takeshi Miike (ahem. See above.) is one of those endeavors that almost nobody can truly succeed. The things that make the Japanese art-shocker auteur consistently worth paying attention to are the very same things that can’t (and shouldn’t) be replicated. Gifted with a staggering natural filmmaking talent and a superhuman level of efficiency, Miike (whom you may recognize as the spooky Japanese Businessman character briefly encountered by the heroes of “Hostel”) typically makes anywhere from three to five feature-length films a year. He works almost-exclusively in familiar, formula-dominated genres (Yakuza gangster epics and horror flicks especially,) utlizing the mutually-understood familiarity of the audience with the cliches and formulaic beats as the foundation for surreal dream-logic, out-of-place-on-purpose slapstick, eyeball-searing violence and flight-of-fancy digressions. He’s said that he feels an entire movie is worth making even if it’s just needed to set-up and justify ONE great shot; and as proof his filmography includes several seemingly straight-faced, traditional action pictures or serious dramas which veer suddenly and without a SHRED of prior indication into gonzo scifi/fantasy insanity seemingly for the singular purpose of giving the assembled audience pie in the face. I firmly believe that watching his astounding cop vs. gangster masterpiece “Dead Or Alive” for the first time is one of the closest things to a transcendant religious experience I’ve ever had at the movies or elsewhere.

And within all that lies our problem: Takeshi Miike’s films succeed because they are seat-of-your-pants endeavors made with great speed and primarily driven by a singular creative force; and (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) studio filmmaking is the exact opposite: Thought-and-rethought products assembled slowly and methodically by committee. Basically, any studio remake (regardless of nationality) of a Miike movie is, by nature, going to strip away the signature insanity – and when you do that, you’re usually going to be left with a pile of cliche’s: Take the horrifying physical violence and psychological torment out of “Audition,” for example, and you’ve just got another boring stalker movie.

Sadly, this is EXACTLY what’s happened with “One Missed Call.” What happens when you take a movie that originally existed only to be a mad-genius’s wacky take on the done-to-death “J-Horror” cycle of “Ringu” (aka “The Ring”) wannabes and slice off every shred of madness AND wackiness? That’s right, you get just another “Ring” wannabe for the pile. It’s a big, obvious collection of stuff you’ve seen in dozens of other movies, and hardly any of it has been used in anything resembling a new or creative way.

Basic idea? A pissed-off ghost (no prizes for guessing age, gender and general-motivation within five freaking minutes) is using a seemingly-benign symbol of modern techno-culture as a force for murder and mayhem. In this case, the scaaaaaary devices are cell-phones, on which victims-to-be recieve phonecalls from their near-future selves recording their dying words. When the time comes, the victims catch glimpses of seemingly-random imagery (generic ‘spooky people’ with the “Jacob’s Ladder” vibration-blur going on) then buy it in dissapointingly mudane ways, signaling ‘the end’ by posthumously coughing-up peices of hard candy. (Footnote: Y’know what would be more fun than this? A slasher-movie where the bad guy slits people’s throats and leaves giant pieces of Pez in the wound.)

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that the more “out-there” visuals have a unifying explanation that the film goes to ridiculous lengths to justify, only to ultimately fail, (in order to “allow” the film to rip-off yet ANOTHER element from “The Ring,” a jar of milipedes is dropped into a flashback sequence with bluntness almost admirable in it’s dumbness,) that creepy-babies, eerie old ladies, big-eyed prophetic moppets, “dancing” ghosts, old-fashioned hospital equipment and heroes who don’t own enough lamps all make their requisite appearances. Granted, some of this is just repeating equally-formulaic beats from the original film, but without the heedless “what the HELL!!??” sensibilities that Miike uses formula as a shortcut toward – It’s like eating a ready-made pie crust raw, cold and unfilled.

Our leads our Shannyn Sossamon as one of a group of ghost-targeted twenty-somethings with an easy-to-guess past trauma (gee, wonder if it will ironically mirror the trauma of our cellular spectre?) and Edward Burns as a cop who’s sister’s freshly-discovered corpse yielded one of the trademark candies. They run into eachother by chance and come to not only understand but fully accept as fact the supernatural presence in their lives with bewildering speed, as though the movie is so proud of it’s parade of generic jump-scares it wants to hurry the plot up to show you. How bad are we talking about? At one point, one of the leads ACTUALLY SAYS to the other “We’d better split up, we’ll cover more ground” or some variation thereof. Really. At that point, I started hoping that they were actually paying homage to Miike with a pie-in-the-face of their own and that this “scary” movie was actually going to end with a talking dog yanking a rubber ghost mask off the crotchety owner of an abandoned amusement park… but no such luck.

Directing duties fell to Eric Valette, a French filmmaker whom I’m told made some fascinating genre shorts in his home country. Whatever chops he might have aren’t on display here, but perhaps we’ll get to see something more promising from him with the survival-horror video game adaptation “Clock Tower” (think “Resident Evil” by way of Dario Argento) which he’s slated to make next. I’m not sure it’s fair to judge him by this film alone, as I’m not sure that ANY filmmaker is capable of making “omigod the shadow in the upper frame is a ghost!!!!” scares actually scary anymore, let alone any of the other old-hat tricks this one throws in.

Ditto for the screenplay by Andrew Klavan, a really fine novelist/columnist who really ought to be getting better work than this. Much like the direction, the scripting here isn’t so much bad as it is inescapably pointless: Every beat has been seen so often before it’s almost unfair to ask ANYONE to come up with anything new to do with them.

This obviously wasn’t made with bad intentions: It plays things mostly straight, there’s no obnoxious comic relief, and it’d free of all but the most “well, DUH” of moralizing messages. Still, execution is what matters, and on that end “One Missed Call” is probably the worst techno-horror offering since “White Noise.”


MINI-REVIEW: The Kite Runner

Based on Khaled Husseini’s bestselling book, “Kite Runner” is a story of Afghanistan’s collapse from the just before the Soviet invasion to the final indignities of Taliban rule fitted into the familiar outlines of, in no particular order, Boy Becomes A Man stories, Immigrant Life stories and Redeeming Old Sins stories. The familiarity is the whole point – i.e. to give a predominantly Western audience insight into an “alien” culture by way of paralells, but there’s a line between ‘familiar’ and ‘predictable’ that it comes a little too close to crossing. All said, though, some fine acting and genuine heart make up for most of it.

By shorthand, it’s the story of a friendship between two Afghan boys: Amir, a rich kid who wants to be a writer, and his best friend (and son of his father’s servant) Hassan. Amir is a sensitive sort, while Hassan is a tough-hewn scrapper who does the fighting for both of them. When opportunity arises for Amir to return the favor and rescue Hassan from a horrible brutalization by a group of bullies, his cowardice gets the better of him. Hassan doesn’t know, but Amir’s guilt at his own failings leads him to cruelly drive his friend away rather than deal with the shame. Soon thereafter, Amir himself is driven away along with his father by the Soviets. He grows to maturity in America, marrying a fellow Afghan immigrant and doing his father proud as a college graduate, but his guilt gnaws at him still – until he gets an unexpected chance at real redemption… one that means journeying back to his homeland and facing down the merciless Taliban face-to-face.

Once you figure out the lesson the film wants Amir to learn, it’s not hard to plot the course of events from there on out. But predictability is mostly forgivable here, since it’s all so genuine-feeling and well put together… with the exception of Act 3, in which the circumstances of Amir’s redemption seem to line up so perfectly it starts to feel FAR too serendipitous. It’s not the definitive story of Afghan life before and after the fall it wants to be – that will be made much later, probably IN Afghanistan – but it’s a fine try.



This is one-half of a pretty decent movie, unfortunately it’s also one-half of a really awful one.

The good half occupies most of the first and second act, with Will Smith doing the last man on Earth thing in a slowly deteriorating, deserted Manhattan in what’s at least a tonally-faithful reworking of Richard Matheson’s seminal scifi novel. A supposed cure for cancer has instead wiped out the human race, and aside from Smith’s Robert Neville anyone who survived is now a shrieking, light-phobic mutant/vampire. Good start.

Sadly, the film doesn’t have the stones to follow Matheson’s work through to it’s grim, pitch-black final twist. So instead we get one of the most awful third-acts to a good movie since I don’t remember when; as what started out as a damn well-mounted work of apocalyptic scifi with a grand and insightful turn of man-going-crazy acting from Smith get’s tossed out the window in favor of thuddingly moronic religious tripe and a bunch of nonsense about butterfly-symbolism; not helped by some of the worst looking CGI creatures you’ll see this year. A total disappointment.