Tue, Jan 29, 2008

: Rambo

I went to this unsure of what to expect. After all, Stallone is like over 60 and it’s been decades since the last Rambo movie. But I liked what they did with this. First, they were loyal to the original character: he’s a loner, a bit of a loser, doesn’t say much, is morally ambiguous, and is a real bad-ass killer. They did not try to “modernize” Rambo and make him politically correct or have him like trying to hunt down Bin Laden or Goldfinger or something else out of his character. Instead, they focused on a single country — war-torn Burma — and gave Rambo the seemingly modest quest of helping out a kidnapped missionary woman there to bring aid to the poor villagers. Of course this turns out to be nothing but trivial as Rambo ends up taking on an entire Burmese army.

Second, I must say I was really impressed by the action in this film and that surprised me. We’ve had some excellent action films in the last couple decades, things that have pushed boundaries like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Bourne Identity, stuff that makes the original Rambo films seem quaint and tame. But Rambo’s back and he’s badder than ever. The violence in this film — and come on, let’s be honest, we don’t go to a Rambo movie for the acting — the violence in this film is astonishing. We see heads and limps lopped off, body parts flying when people step on mines, an arrow go through a guy’s head and come out his chin, more blood than a zombie movie, and lots of bullet-ridden bodies. It is extremely realistic, too. Not for the faint of heart. Personally, I found this refreshing. I’ve always been annoyed at action films that cut away right as the sword hits or whatever. This one shows the brains splattering, the tendons being severed as the leg comes off, limbs and chunks of flesh raining as debrie after an explosion. Speaking of explosions, this film has some of the best explosions I’ve ever seen. Really impressive and cool. Most film set us up for the “big bang” and we get a wimpy fireball. This one gives us earthquake-style world-shattering forest-flattening explosions that are just awesome.

Overall the story, as you might expect, is simple. Stallone’s acting hasn’t improved, he’s still just as wooden as ever, but he’s aged remarkably well and is in amazing shape. He’s still totally believable as Rambo. I bet he could still do another one or two of these films. The film’s a bit of a flashback to the 1980s, and maybe I’m just a fan of that era, but I thought this was refreshing, anti-PC, and a whole lot of fun.

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: First Blood

I liked the new Rambo so much that I decided to watch the DVD of the original this evening. It’s been many years since I’ve seen it and I had recently purchased the DVD on sale. This is a really cool film. Definitely a classic. It’s got horrible acting (Stallone seems to bring down even some of the good actors involved) and the script’s a bit over-the-top in trying to deliver zingers, but the story is excellent — a drifter, abused by a small-town sherrif for no reason, ends up being the target of a manhunt — and the action is superb (the drifter single-handedly, with only a knife, survives and hides from hundreds of attackers). It really is like a schoolyard fight with both boys crying out, “He started it!” but of course since the consequences this time are deadly, it really makes you think. Terrific and holds up surprisingly well.

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Fri, Jan 25, 2008

: Untraceable

I was expecting this to be dreadful, mostly because the premise is so technically ludicrous. But to my surprise it’s not that bad. The best thing is no doubt the presence of Diane Lane, who rises above the ordinary script and silly plot. Another good thing is that the film is set in Portland, Oregon, which was unexpected and rather cool. The plot is absurd — a murderer is killing victims live on an “untraceable” website and the more people who tune in, the faster the victim dies. But once you get past the illogic (20+ million people tuning in to see live streaming video — we’re talking Google-sized bandwidth that can’t be traced?) the film does have an interesting point or two about our voyeristic culture. Say it wasn’t a serial killer but a Middle Eastern terrorist killing Americans live on the web — would we tune in? Still, this is a gimmicky film that can’t escape that, but it’s decent enough and not nearly as unwatchable as I expected.

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Wed, Jan 23, 2008

: There Will Be Blood

I didn’t like this as much as I expected — perhaps the positive reviews got my expectations too high. (There’s no question in my mind that the amazing No Country for Old Men deserves the Best Picture Oscar.) My dissatisfaction comes from the fact that story doesn’t seem to have much of a point. The plot reminds me a lot of Citizen Kane except that there’s no frame around which to find depth and meaning. Instead we merely have the story of a poor gold-digger in the late 1800s who discovers oil and connives his way to into buying oil-filled land undervalue so he can be even wealthier. The richer he get, the less morality he has. A key conflict in the story is the awkward battle between him and a local religious leader, a character so over-the-top as to be obviously flawed (he’s a morally bankrupt mirror of the rich oil guy), but I found the conflict forced, trite, and wanting. Much more compelling for me was the relationship of the oil man with his adopted son who goes from beloved to pariah after an accident leaves him deaf, and the oil man’s frustration at not being able to control the boy. Overall we’ve got a mediocre story with some fantastic characters portrayed by some brilliant actors and some incredible direction and camera-work, yet the pieces don’t quite add up to the expected total. Don’t get me wrong: this is a great movie, well above the average, but it falls just a step short of the greatest I anticipated. It is still well worth seeing, however, and I highly recommend it. Just don’t expect it to cure cancer and change your life.

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Fri, Jan 18, 2008

: Cloverfield

Surprisingly decent Godzilla-type movie filmed from the viewpoint of a found video camera with amateur recording of the events on it. It’s a bit gimmicky, but fairly well done with an attempt at characterization and it’s mercifully short and the gimmick isn’t over-used. Fun.

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Thu, Jan 17, 2008

: Juno

The plot’s slim and predictable — a 16-year-old discovers she’s pregnant and decides to have the baby despite the hardship — yet what makes this film wonderful is the girl’s impressive wild-yet-wise character, the humorous and quirky presentation of events, and an excellent supporting cast. It’s a feel-good film about something that doesn’t feel good, which is an accomplishment. Remarkable.

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Wed, Jan 16, 2008

: Charlie Wilson’s War

I wasn’t super excited about this one since it’s so political, but it turns out to be a fascinating true story from the early 1980s about a clever yet unimportant congressman from a tiny county in rural Texas who ends up masterminding the greatest covert military operation in the history of the world. He’s on the committee that oversees covert spending and manages to up the U.S. budget for helping Afghanistan defeat the Soviet invasion from $5 million to $500 billion. In the process he gives the rebels the weapons and training they need to fight and eventually outlast the Soviet empire, and indirectly bankrupting the Soviet Union and bringing the fall of Communism. It’s a great story told well, with humor, charm, excellent pacing, and drama, and I really enjoyed it.

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Fri, Jan 11, 2008

: The Great Debaters

Now this is an excellent film. It tells the true story of a group of young black kids at a black college way back when who become the first black debaters to compete against Harvard. It’s a terrific tale about the lives of these amazing young people, their fabulous teacher, and the very different world they inhabited in those days. The film is a nice blend of plot, personal stories, history, and drama. It’s definitely hte best movie I’ve seen this year. Of course it is only January, but I’ll remember this one for a long time. The cast is unbelievable. If there’s any justice, this will be remembered for the Academy Awards.

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: The Bucket List

This is the kind of gimmicky movie that can be poorly implemented, but I’m pleased to report that this was handled excellently. It’s the story of two elderly men who meet in the hospital while they are dying and decide to do everything on their “Bucket List” — the list of things they wanted to do before they died. The two aren’t exactly friends but become close, and the film takes what could be a grim and depressing topic and makes it entertainment, touching, and humorous, but without cheapening it. It is a bit Hollywood — that is to say light — but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth enjoying.

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